Monday 14 July 2014

Foucault, Discipline, and Work

Chances are you've seen this. In what looks like summer kite-flying to me, the Tories have floated the idea that people who receive Employment Support Allowance for mental health problems should undergo treatment on pain of losing social security payments. Forcing medication on people, piling unnecessary stress on existing illness ... there's a special category of stupid for the cretin who came up with that. It's as vicious as it is ridiculous, yet has that ring of plausibility to it. You just know they will implement it if this government is given a new lease of life. Still think there's no difference between the Tories and Labour?

Such a policy sits within the horizon of our political imaginations. The Tories are responsible for thinking it up, for bringing it to the table. Yet underpinning it are a whole set of shared assumptions. You see, life in 21st century Britain isn't all about consumption. The trendy cultural theorists and marketing gurus have sold you a pup. Allow me to be woefully unoriginal: it's all about work. You know it, I know it. If you're on the dole, you're scum basically. Unemployment is never a matter of economics, it has nothing to do with a lack of jobs. It's an individual tragedy, nay, an individual failing. If you haven't got a job it's because there's something up with you. There's a flaw, a malaise, an indiscipline, an absence of competence that speaks the truth of your character. You're not merely unemployed. You're unemployable. From this flows all manner of policy assumptions that most readers will know well: criteria for qualification, compulsory job-seeking activities, CV enhancement "opportunities", continual physicals, work-for-dole schemes. You could spend all night picking through one petty rule after another. Think about the culture too. The press routinely denounce the unemployed and expose benefit fraudsters. And look at their depiction on TV. Shameless might be fictional, but the unworthy, dangerous poor cluttering up Benefits Street and Jeremy Kyle aren't. Even worse, it's the sweat of your brow that's keeping these people in Google Glasses and Super Hi-Def roll-up TVs.

This we know. It's one of history's ironic chuckles that addressing working people explicitly as workers has proven most effective keeping us divided, atomised, and at war with ourselves. Some might pretend class doesn't count, but those 'some' aren't those who articulate, repeat, and benefit from peddling hate towards our most vulnerable people. The question then, is why. Typically, at least among left accounts it's located in capital's largely successful struggle to subordinate an ever greater share of social life to its imperatives. In the British context specifically it is heavily conditioned by the strategic defeats inflicted on organised labour in the 1980s, defeats that have left a legacy more abiding than the lip gloss, big hair and luminescent socks one typically associates with that decade. Technological change at work, deindustrialisation, in-your-face consumerism were all intertwined, conditioned and conditioning of struggle and their aftershocks. A history of culture, a history of work, a history of class, a history of capital, a history of politics since 1979 is partial, biased and wrong if it fights shy of appreciating the whole context of that period.

As a general rule, with slightly different emphases and terms, that's accepted across the left. There's your reason for the popular acceptance of scrounger discourse. However, it's a bit of a leap to say antipathy toward White Dee is a direct result of a disadvantageous class peace coupled with media brainwashing. What's missing is an intervening level of analysis, a realm of theoretical magnification that demonstrates how the general and the particular fit together the way that they do. We need to zoom right in and look at the microphysics of power, of the small, barely perceptible and sneaky ways power positions, flows and circulates through and around individual human beings. Michel Foucault is just the fella to help us out.

Foucault's body of work is the most useful and challenging to have come out of the French post-structuralist scene. Among his most lasting and substantive contributions is his critique of political theory and formulation of a new method of understanding power. You can find more on sex and power here, and some stuff on the relationship between Foucault and Marx. That's why Foucault here is getting the Noddy treatment.

Unlike traditional conceptions of power, where it is something to be wielded, to be imposed and imposing, as the capacity to force one will on another and compel them to do things, Foucault opposes this "negative" understanding with a positive, or productive reading of how it works. The difference between the two is starkly illustrated in the opening pages of his Discipline and Punish. The first example is a graphic description of the 1757 torture and drawing and quartering of one Robert-François Damiens, a criminal condemned to a grisly end for the attempted murder of Louis XV. Foucault juxtaposes this with a daily schedule taken from the Mettray penal colony less than a century later. This specifies a rigid timetable of activities, when inmates should be in their cells, etc. For Foucault, these typify the shift that power in early modern France had undergone. In the first, it speaks of a situation where power is deposited in the body of the sovereign - the monarch. Therefore Damiens' fate is to be ripped apart, for vengeance to be violently and publicly wreaked upon his anatomy so that the sovereign's (social) body is recuperated by a display of his power. Reading the scene demonstrates how power works, that it is the prerogative and property of the sovereign, that his person is pre-eminent before all others. The second is suggestive of an entirely different operation of power. Here, the society, the social body is sovereign, that each individual carries with them a particulate of that sovereignty. And to recuperate its body, rather than obliterate those who offend against it society is concerned with punishing and disciplining its convicts, of rehabilitating them so they can be re-absorbed into the social body as productive, law-abiding citizens.

Here, in his early work on madness and subsequent treatment of sexuality, Foucault's interest is in how power "makes" subjects. The prison is the place where political technologies of the body came together and were refined. To rehabilitate criminals a variety of means were introduced and repeated. The regimentation of the day, the emphasis on prison labour, drills, the possibility of perpetual surveillance, these technologies aimed to discipline the criminal body, to create a docile but productive subjectivity through the routine and observation. For the authorities, it was an opportunity to experiment with new techniques, to develop panoptic architecture for incarceration . Hence, at one level of remove, it required the prisoner to collude, to adapt to the regimen as if it was their common sense, to submit. This for Foucault is key to his microphysics of productive power - it flows relationally, positions people, manipulates bodies, creates souls.

Foucault isn't Michael Howard though. He knew prison didn't work. After all, where there's power there's always resistance. But on paper, these techniques of the body, these political technologies were extremely attractive to anyone who had to manage groups of people. From emerging nation states and their population management problematic, to schools, workplaces, hospitals, barracks, disciplinary power was embraced. It inscribed itself on the internal lay out of class rooms, workshops, offices, wards, and was elaborated wherever there was a problem to be "managed". Or, to put it in Foucauldian terms, the will to management articulated the problem, such as sexuality. Think about it, think how authority, the possibility of surveillance, and self-surveillance club together to inculcate specific organisational subjectivities across a range of institutions and walks of life. The diffuse capillaries of power would like you to love Big Brother, but acting as if you do will suffice.

Having elaborated a 'genealogy' of power, Foucault's impact has been a profound across the social and human sciences. Yet, before his premature death, he also noted that disciplinary power was becoming old hat itself - the disciplinary society was making way for the surveillance society. Here, the political technologies of the body that were explicitly elaborated in the 19th century had more or less become the popular common sense, that the possibility of surveillance, panopticism, was a diffuse property inscribed in the very fabric of everyday social relations, and that we as subjects in this surveillance society would not only accept it as the norm but gleefully participate in it. Social media and the desire to be visible is as pure a surveillance technology can be.

This brings us back to the why, to the fit between macro-level social transformation and the outpouring of work-centric discourse. The institutional set up of the post-war settlement, on one level, tried to reconcile the ultimately irreconcilable. The economy/society relation was overtly mediated and managed by the state. Running sectors of the economy to maintain full employment and the health of British capital rested upon compromises between organised labour and business. The latter, for its own part, was organised and disciplined by commercial imperatives and preservation of private ownership. The former was organised and disciplined by the relatively tight-knit working class community, its self-organisation and discipline in the workplace and, to a degree, a certain level of cultural homogeneity. Going to work to earn a wage was not a matter of laying yourself at management's disposal. For the strategic sections of the working class, discipline at work was conditioned primarily by the everyday, bread and butter politics of employees as a collective. Just as there the need for a legislatively-mandated minimum wage was regarded superfluous (and in some cases, harmful to working people) because wage levels were determined by free collective bargaining, so the problem of work discipline did not exist. The post-war period was no golden age by any means, but neither was there an idea, let alone a panic, around supposed cultures of social security dependency and worklessness. The working class, effectively, regulated itself. The political technologies of the workplace was about maintaining workers as a collective bargaining chip and not for management's convenience.

You might be able to see what I'm driving at. Thatcher's offensive in the 1980s shattered the attempted institutionalisation of class struggle. Privatisation, closures, mass unemployment, even selling off council houses, this weakened labour vis capital, but it also wrecked the means and the technologies by which the working class disciplined and prepared itself as workers. Therefore the explosion in scrounger discourse that emerged in the 80s wasn't only a cynical Tory ploy to demonise the millions they made unemployed, it's the top-down assumption of responsibility to cultivate an alternative worker subjectivity because the working class could no longer do so. And as the weakness of the labour movement has persisted, so has the overly and overtly discursive inculcation of that subjectivity. Education has been subtly remodelled away from learning and knowledge to "skills". HE is explicitly marketed in terms of "employability". Political discourse in its more "positive" moments is premised on "hard-working people" and their "aspirations". In the surveillance society, these discursive moves have been thoroughly internalised - scrounger horror stories fall on fertile ground while the long-term unemployed, the disabled, all those who do not work run the risk of exposure and ostracism, and the stress of trying to justify themselves. "I worked all my life until ...".

In sum, scrounger rhetoric is part and parcel of a disciplinary technology appropriate to the surveillance society, a society which destroyed the institutional capacity of its working class to constitute itself as such independently of capital, and now anxiously but vindictively tries to ensure worker drones with aptitude, discipline and drive are produced and reproduced. It might appear that this inculcation occurs from a position of strength. Yet among the barely-concealed angst and ceaseless moral panic, you might find a flicker of recognition, a fear, that this state of affairs is far from permanent.


Anonymous said...

It is those bastards that want to consume consume consume who are forcing me to work until I drop.

And mots of those bastards are in work!

Phil said...

Such is the beauty of economics. It's a regime of mutual discipline as well as an arena of exploitation, petty tyranny and unfreedom.

WillORNG said...

The illusion of consumer and political choice when the real socio-political economic choices have systemically been narrowed and shallowed, hollowed out to a husk. Individual choice is 'sovereign' we are/were assured, but one of the biggest repeated lies of all time "there is no alternative" when there always is a choice, and usually there are many better alternatives.