Raison d’Etat

So, first, a meta-word. One of the things we’re going to try to do is have the news and views section of this website have a bit more content, so if you’re wondering why I’m being allowed to blog here about general crime/incarceration stuff, that’s why!


For a while now, I’ve been trying to teach myself some of the late Foucault’s thought, with mixed success. My current project is the collection of his 1977-1978 lectures published in English as Security, Territory, Population. This afternoon, my daughter is at a birthday party with my wife, giving me a rare opportunity to sit down and read something that’s not part of a completely urgent project, and so I cracked the book again. I came across this interesting passage, in the midst of Foucault’s discussion of the shift from “pastoral” thought to “governmentality” and the associated raison d’Etat. Foucault, here, is discussing the concept of the coup d’Etat, which in the context of the literature he’s looking at doesn’t have its modern sense of a violent shift in government but rather of a use of violence on the part of the government that violates the law and norms in the name of preserving the state – more like what Schmitt or Agamben discuss under the heading of “exception.”

So, while discussing this (pp. 266-267):

To the great promise of the pastorate, which required every hardship, even the voluntary ones of asceticism, there now succeeds this theatrical and tragic harshness of the state that in the name of its always threatened and never certain salvation, requires us to accept acts of violence as the purest form of reason, and of raison d’Etat.

This struck me particularly in the context of a conversation I’ve been having with Joshua Miller recently (on Facebook and elsewhere). Lots of folks have been claiming that the recent uptick in shootings and homicides in my home city of Baltimore is the result of police feeling some combination of too resentful and too fearful to do their jobs in the wake of April’s Freddie Gray protests. Smarter people than me have called this out as statistical horsefeathers.

But another interesting side of this is the form of the argument, even were the statistics in support. One aspect of the argument that comes from a leftish place is to say that we can’t ignore this kind of worry, since exposing poor and Black people to disproportionate criminal violence is itself an injustice, denying them equal protection of the state. That makes the argument sound something like: Look, aggressive policing and mass incarceration are a nasty business, to be sure – but they are the only way to get a handle on the violent crime in some of these neighborhoods. To do otherwise than we do is to allow the state to disintegrate in the areas that need it most. And importantly: You would gladly suffer the same if it meant preserving your safety, surely. That, I take it, is the source of a lot of “if you have nothing to hide…” thinking.

So, so far, so unsurprising: we are asked to suffer one kind of crime (exceptional action by police and in prisons) to avoid a worse kind of crime. But one thing left out, or at least that if Foucault brings up but I haven’t gotten to, is the distribution of this expectation. “Yes,” I say, “I would accept stop and frisk if it kept me safe from murders.” But the reality is that application of raison d’Etat is itself uneven – it is not accidental that, in my neighborhood, I am never asked to suffer the asceticism of police brutality. Which makes it sound much more like we’re talking about a system where exceptional policing practices are being used to preserve a state (as Foucault earlier notes, one of its senses is “status”) that precisely keeps me safe and exposes others to harm, with their safety from harm a kind of illusion.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why no one should let me read Foucault.

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