Doing International Studies Differently: Foucault on War, Space, Territory, Population and Governmentality

My intention is neither to discuss the full context of Foucault’s series of lectures in the 1970s, nor develop in details about each of these lectures. Others have done this very well: Mauro Bertani, Francois Ewald, Alessandro Fontana, Frederic Gros and Michel Sennelart especially. I would like however to very briefly link these lectures with the topics that traditional IR scholars considered as their domain of expertise, and that Foucault questioned so differently. I will evoke two topics only. The first is the discussion about war, with Foucault’s reading of Hobbes and his strong critique of the neo-Hobbesian school of thought characterized by its attitude toward deterrence. On several occasions, Foucault insisted on his view of war as colonization and production of a historical narrative. The second topic relates to the patient deconstruction of the dogma of states’ attributes: territory, population, security, which begins as early as 1974 and will continue at least until 1979. It may not be a theory of power as IR scholars fancy it, but it offers a clear alternative to understand the “voluntary servitude,” that shall not be reduced to a will to serve, but rather implies to understand how freedom, resistance and power are articulated into a micro-physics, and not through big structures and huge institutions.

As Bertani and Fontana emphasized: “Foucault’s interest in power stems from the vigilance, attention and interest with which he followed what Nietzsche called ‘die grosse Politik’: the rise of fascisms around the world, the civil wars, the establishment of military dictatorships, the oppressive geopolitical aims of the great powers (and especially of the United States in Vietnam).”15 They also insisted on how deeply Foucault’s interest in power was rooted in his political practice that allowed him to ground his analyses on concrete situations such as the material living conditions of the prisoners for example. With the historical context in mind, made of wars, social struggles and rebellions, Fontana and Bertani interpret the Society Must Be Defended lectures series as “the point of articulation of the political problem of power and the historical question of race.”16

On several occasions Foucault spoke of his determination to understand this polymorphic violence that runs through society, and what Bertani and Fontana remind the English speaking readership of, is Foucault’s strategy not to explicitly refer to a country or a given situation, rather proposing tools to understand power practices in various contexts. In this regard, and contrary to what some post-colonial critique of Foucault suggested,17 Bertani and Fontana insist on Foucault’s high interest for dissent and postcolonial struggles. They evoke the book and movie Moi, Pierre Riviere and the testimony of Daniel Defert:

As Daniel Defert reminds us in his ‘Chronology,’ Foucault was reading Trotsky, Guevara, Luxemburg, and Clausewitz in 1967 and 1968. He was also reading the writings of the Black Panthers at that time, and he remarks in a letter ‘they are developing a strategic analysis that has emancipated itself from Marxist theory.’ In a letter written in December 1972, he says that he wants to analyze power relations by looking at ‘the most disparaged of all wars: neither Hobbes, nor Clausewitz, nor the class struggle: civil war.’ And in another letter, written in August 1974, he writes: ‘My marginals are incredibly familiar and repetitive. I feel like looking at something else: political economy, strategy, politics.18

Foucault will therefore invest time trying to understand the closest colonial situations; Northern Ireland especially to see how these dimensions explain the long occupation of Ireland by the English, and also detainment conditions for political prisoners.

As I mentioned earlier, even if Michel Foucault never engaged with the orthodox discipline of political science, he nonetheless engaged with the journal of geopolitics Herodote and Yves Lacoste. The journal was heterodox at that time, contending functionalism and systemism, IR dominant approaches and conflict studies (Marcel Merle). It also opened its columns to post-colonial battles, analyzing Cyprus, Chile, anticolonial struggles. Like Michel Foucault, Yves Lacoste questioned the practices of making war in relation to territory and population, refusing to forget war-making, and to transform governments into “protectors” ensuring security to the population. The discussion was intense but never concretized into an alliance of knowledge (alliance dessavoirs).19 Nevertheless, when Foucault’s ideas were translated into English, the geographers inspired by Herodote abroad were the first to listen to what he had to say about war and also territory:20 territory has no certainty and is not an organizing principle for control and order. It is the contingent result of struggles of power and knowledge. States fighting for territories to expand their power and security derive from a vitalist approach common to many expressions of racism. The criticism of orthodox political science could not be more damageable.

As often with Foucault, his analytics of war, power, space and territory began with some bold statements he presented as questions that occur as soon as someone takes on an “empirical mood.” What are the relations between practices of war, space and territory? What are the effects of these wars on populations? Is it possible to think about them “strategically?” Do we necessarily have to begin with Hobbes? In a soft tone, he explained that Hobbes did not offer a description of wars and civil wars; rather he wanted to set up the spatial and temporal frame of understanding justifying a “sub-lunar” sovereignty for the state. Hobbes tried to find “the formulation of general principles of public law.” “So, the art of government was caught between an excessively large, abstract, and rigid framework of sovereignty on the one hand, and, on the other, a model of the family that was too narrow, weak, and insubstantial.”21

In this vision, war is the “horizon” of a struggle of every man against every man, not an effective practice. This is the vision Clausewitz developed after the Napoleonic wars, pushing the idea even further, with the possible escalation to total war if politics did not limit the game by imposing strategic goals. This is also the logic at work in Aron’s narrative with the introduction of deterrence as a war against the will of the adversary; a will that can be destroyed without fighting effectively if capacities of retaliation exist, and there remains no doubt about the determination to use them. This elaborated story, however, does not analyze the exercise of power. Should it do so, war would then be about invasion, occupation and the colonization of a people by another.

This certainly explains why Foucault’s discussion on Boulainvilliers is so interesting. Through him it is possible to do the analytics of competing narratives that insist on the existence of either one or two peoples, and to see how colonization and occupation are justified and organized as forms of historical knowledge.22 In the Society Must Be Defended lectures series, this is obviously not without reminding of the USA in Vietnam, Israel in

Palestine, and the Northern Ireland case, but Foucault’s thinking tools are sharp enough so he does not need to make specific reference to any of these contexts.

The February 1976 lectures therefore deal centrally with the objects of International Relations: war and the exercise of power, as well as their regimes of justification. At no moment, however, does Foucault use the terminology of political science of security, be it to talk about security as survival or security as a balance of power (see also Esteves and Fernandez in this volume). He seems to carefully avoid this terminology of security in which violence appears as a protection of the people by the state. His critique of the nineteenth century interpretation of the Hobbesian narrative, which allows to escape the practices of war-making and to develop a discourse of war “hanging over,” reduced to a duel of will, to a virtualization, to aerial warfare with defoliant technologies. Here, Raymond Aron is one of the obvious ghost figures.

Yet, when Boulainvilliers writes about Gaul, Romans, Frankish and the Germanic invasion, the reader may have the war in Vietnam or the Israel/ Palestine situation in mind; it is up to him. The same can be said for the absent term of security in a military understanding of survival. Using the terminology would be accepting a certain narrative from the discipline of political science and IR. The term security is not used to analyze war practices, it has to be either rejected or exclusively used in relation to the protection of workers, with guarantees and welfare.

This is what most “critical security studies” scholars never understood for they have been searching for the lectures explicitly mentioning “security,” and not the ones in which Foucault was in fact (intentionally) avoiding the term though dealing with the practices of violence that CSS and IR actually name(d) “security.” I shall return on this productive misunderstanding concerning security, and would now like to focus on the two later moves I mentioned earlier.

As Foucault explained in his lectures, if colonization reframed the history of people, then processes of marginalization and exclusion were certainly not delimited by territorial borders and war-making. They were transversal. Unsurprisingly, nationalism goes hand in hand with the production of “abnormals” inside the territory, be they monsters, onanists or incorrigibles. Therefore, the model or matrix of war may be the best way to analyze, not the international, but society itself, reversing Clausewitz’s approach on politics and war. Foucault therefore dared to question the relation between contention, war and state-making by analyzing how enmity is produced inside a society, and came back to the genealogy of biopower and state racism in its most extreme modalities (Nazism and fascism), however suggesting these were the exacerbation of a logic that all colonial countries had experimented. If politics is the continuation of colonial war by other means, then the rule of law and constitutional rules may be invested by this logic of enmity organized to target some insiders, who look like others. The war of occupation builds a political narrative of uniqueness justifying struggles and promoting a historical knowledge. This is how war and the international are not absent from Foucault’s lectures. On the contrary, they are a red thread between the lectures, even when the “objects” look purely “national.”

However, this can be clear only once it is assumed that doubts exist about the fact that a territory would be the result of a homogenizing function of the people inside, simultaneously working as a differentiating function that almost automatically produces outsiders, i.e. foreigners “belonging” to other states. Territory could certainly be multifunctional and, depending on the quality of the political institution of borders, delimit a sphere of control where bureaucracies could legitimately operate. But it could also be unfinished, spiked by holes, dependent on a milieu continually transforming, organized through multiple interventions on the freedom of movement, and thought of as millions of individuals not always recognizing themselves as “subjects.”

By focusing on (the conduct of) conducts, Michel Foucault displaced once again the discussion from the means of power concentration (implicitly seen as a resource that can be hoard) to the conditions under which power circulates and flanks freedom in a way to act upon it. Mobility, circulation, associated with freedom of action and movement therefore become the milieu that sets up the conditions of possibility allowing for a series of interdependent relations to be encapsulated into a territory whose boundaries are acknowledged and lived as necessity (on the concept of milieu, see Taylan in this volume).

This movement of freedom (rather than a freedom of movement) organizes, at the “molecular” scale, a permanent and changing environment. The state, in this perspective, is the result of this organization of regularities. It becomes consistent as a “mole of molecules,” and not because it would possess a quality or a will to power that would permit the concentration of the means of violence, and justify its use. In his book Foucault and the chapter “A New Cartographer” in particular, Gilles Deleuze insisted on this question of power that is not opposed to freedom but built on it, and that is never possessed and accumulated, but circulates, moves along the lines of resistance and their fluctuations, anticipating what Zygmunt Bauman would later call liquidity. More than Foucault himself, Deleuze considered that the state could not be an “actor” with territory, population, administration and government as its main attributes (see also Bayart in this volume). He accused political science of being reactionary and always on the side of order, through the creation of a puppet show, a shadow theater embodying the state, the people, the nation and assigning them their artificial life with the ideas of populations, administrations and governments.

For Foucault and Deleuze alike, it is necessary to understand the process at work, the doing, and not what has been done and constructed as done. What are the doings, the practices that organize a territory? How is a territory constructed through frontier segments joined together to close—at least in the imagination—a polygon geometrical figure, ideally a circle? What is the role of bordering and de-bordering in the process of constructing a territory? How can a territory be controlled via a map of strategically positioned checkpoints that cannot however be analyzed as a continuous wall or series of walls? How to cope with circulations? The space, the “milieu” organizes mobility and freedom by practically blocking the idea of territoriality as a body of a political organism called state and promoting the ideas of network and bifurcation. Yet, if a certain control of space is feasible, beyond coercion and violence, it is via the limits of freedom itself when applied in practice.

It is, I suggest, to avoid the term “necessity”—which he was objecting in his fight at a distance with Hobbes—that Foucault used the term security; a mistake, as we shall see, since this terminology of security was later interpreted as being related to the IR conception of security by some, as a justification of liberal economics by others. Central regarding the discussion on territory is that if political science scholars could ignore the questions raised by Foucault in the mid-seventies, these came back as a resurgence of the repressed by the end of bipolarity and in a context of growing claims about globalization and a world politics in the making. For an IR scholar, to be foucaldian became a way to understand his time, but that implied to accept that border, order and identity are myths to be deconstructed, and to seriously consider that power circulates, that freedom and power are not to be opposed, that states only exist as loci, as “moles” of molecular practices, as fields of actions, and not as the embodiments of political communities, whatever nationalist and liberal discourses might claim.

The idea that movement, mobility, interconnections and interdependences could render national territories inoperative as a set of practices of control despite the apparent beautiful homogeneity and complementary colors of the states on the maps of the geopoliticians, has introduced a series of doubts regarding the coherence of the assumptions of spatiality in political science, which have eroded the belief in a territorial state acting in his specific realm. It took time for the decay to generate its productive works and to have a rejuvenation of ideas regarding power and politics. This feeling was shared with French politists in charge of their new discipline. For them, the “essence” of the state and the “international” as a community of states was at stake, and it was dangerous. Many reactions aiming to re-affirm the canons of international relations were developed in different manuals and treaties of political science, in particular by the first generation of “agreges” in France, rounding up the Sorbonne and Sciences-Po to stop the “noise” of these questions.

Nevertheless, in the immediate post cold-war period, discourses claiming that trans-national actors (multinational companies, NGOs, activist networks) were playing a role in trans-border activities, that states could be at risk with a dark side of globalization, that trans-governmental networks were a way to answer to the trans-nationalization of private actors, multiplied and came as a challenge for IR canons.

Beyond this however, the discussion raised the practical question of the trans-nationalization of all the so-called attributes of the state, therefore of its status. It implied a transformation of the political imagination organizing the discipline, including changing its name: world politics, international political economy and international political sociology. This new political imagination—maybe a slight transformation of an older episteme—was valorizing territory to such a level that geographers felt obliged to warn their IR colleagues of being prisoners of a “territorial trap” blocking their understanding of the world.23 The set of geographical assumptions that have combined to obscure the historicity and mutability of political space and territory within international relations and comparative politics had to be deconstructed by raising the issue of borders, of the enclosures that form a territory and by questioning their governmentality.

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