This week I taught my class introducing students to the work of Michel Foucault. As I do every year, in preparation I went back to some of his writings to refresh my memory and to re-engage myself with the ideas. Every time I do this, something different stands out. This time around, I was more aware of Foucault as a philosopher attempting to speak to radical activists. With the wider debate about whether or not Britain should participate in the aerial bombardment of Syria raging in the news media, a particular passage from the final chapter of The History of Sexuality, Volume 1 jumped out at me.
In this section Foucault is arguing that the right to kill that was once exercised on behalf of the sovereign has been transformed in modern times . He writes:
This death that was based on the right of the sovereign is now manifested as simply the reverse of the right of the social body to ensure, maintain, or develop its life. Yet wars were never as bloody as they have been since the nineteenth century, and all things being equal, never before did regimes visit such holocausts on their own populations. But this formidable power of death… now presents itself as the counterpart of a power that exerts a positive influence on life, that endeavors to administer, optimize, and multiply it, subject it to precise controls and comprehensive regulations. Wars are no longer waged in the name of the sovereign who must be defended; they are waged on behalf of everyone; entire populations are mobilized for the purpose of wholesale slaughter in the name of life necessity: massacres have become vital… The principle underlying the tactics of battle—that one has to be capable of killing in order to go on living—has become the principle that defines the strategy of states.
Whether it is on Syria or Trident, the logic that Foucault uncovers in this passage is the same as that which is being used against Jeremy Corbyn’s policies. ‘We’ have to be capable of killing in order to go on living. Corbyn might not have convinced the parliamentary Labour Party, but his stance has provided a greater space for us to question this principle. Using Foucault, we should challenge both a logic that claims ‘our’ vulnerability can be remedied through war and an ethics that claims ‘our’ vulnerability justifies war.
[N.b. The quote I have used has been taken from: Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, trans. Robert Hurley (London: Penguin Books, 1998), pp. 136-7.]
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