voting and punishment: Foucault, biopower, and modern elections

Michel Foucault wrote a great deal about punishment as a tool that governors use to discipline the governed. Voting seems like the opposite: a device for the governed to discipline the governing. But Foucault’s concept of bio-politics can be illuminatingly applied as a critique of modern voting.

Foucault begins “Security, Territory, Population” (his 1977-8 lectures at the Collège de France) with a “very simple, very childish example” of punishment in three forms.

  • Juridico-Legal: The law defines a category of actions as a crime (e.g., theft), and sets a certain punishment to follow it in order to restore justice. This punishment is usually conducted in public and on the body of the accused.
  • Disciplinary: Punishment is used to influence behavior, both of the person being punished and of others who may be deterred. Punishments are now designed to have results; for instance, prisons become “houses of correction.” If a given punishment lacks beneficial consequences (as Cesare Beccaria argued of torture), it should be repealed. But in Discipline and Punish, Foucault interprets this apparent humanity or leniency as a reflection of an ominous improvement in the efficiency of discipline, whose purpose is “not to punish less, but to punish better.'”
  • Security: The objective becomes to influence the frequency of undesirable actions (such as theft) in the population as a whole. Outcomes are measured statistically, for instance, in terms of crimes/capita or probabilities of recidivism. A given punishment, such as imprisonment, is now a mere tool for security, to be assessed by its aggregate costs and benefits and compared against other tools, such as paying or training people to behave as desired or subjecting them to surveillance and monitoring.

Foucault emphasizes that these three “modulations” of punishment have not simply replaced one another in a historical sequence. Even medieval law sometimes aimed at security; juridico-legal thinking remains alive today. But security has become far more prominent in the current era than it was before.

Like punishment, voting has adopted relatively durable forms but has changed its purposes and rationales in profound ways. Drawing on Michael Schudson’s accessible history, I would identify the following three stages in the history of US voting:

  • Nineteenth Century: Voting is mostly a public expression of full membership in a group. By voting at all, a man shows that he is a full and free US citizen. By voting for a party, he shows his loyalty to a sub-population, e.g., Southern white Protestant farmers vote for Democrats. Voting is conducted in public (ballots are not secret) along with torchlight parades and other public rituals. Generally, everyone in a given community votes alike and reinforces each other. Voting is an obligation.
  • Progressive Era: Voting is a private choice among independent candidates and ballot questions. Voting maximizes the degree to which the government represents the voter’s interests and values. Elections also punish corrupt or incompetent incumbents by rotating them out of office. To enable a free and precise choice, the ballot is now secret; candidates are distinguished from parties; numerous offices are made elective; and important questions are put to referenda. Reporters, experts, and civic educators purport to assist voters in making up their own minds. Voting is a source of power that should be employed responsibly.
  • Post-Watergate: For individuals, voting is one means of influencing the government (at a time when other means have proliferated) and is one optional way to spend time and energy. A prospective voter is assumed to weigh the costs of voting–including the costs of becoming informed–against its benefits. The population is assumed to vote as a function of large external factors, such as the billions of dollars spent on campaign advertising and the constantly shifting procedures for registering and voting. Candidates are entrepreneurs who make heavy use of Big Data to target and influence citizens. Some prominent political scientists and jurists defend private campaign finance on the basis that the various campaign donors cancel each other out in a competitive market. Voting, running for office, and giving money are choices; aggregate results can be predicted.

The three stages of voting resemble those of punishment. In each case, we see a move from 1) symbolic to 2) deliberately manipulative to 3) scientific and statistical. We also see a move from 1) automatic to 2) individually tailored to 3) designed at a social scale. And a sequence of 1) physical impact on bodies, to 2) influence over individual minds, to 3) tweaking the milieux that shape mass behavior. Foucault calls scientific control over the contexts that shape human behavior “bio-politics,” which is the ascendant norm.

In the case of punishment, the tool’s effectiveness has increased, but control is increasingly dispersed. The medieval king was fully in charge of the gallows, but he couldn’t influence much of his realm with it. The modern regime of schools, prisons, and police is much more effective and pervasive, but there is no single king. Power strengthens but also multiplies.

In the case of voting, the tool may possibly have become more powerful, but the individual voter pretty clearly has less influence today, for other political acts (from drawing district lines to allocating campaign dollars) have become highly sophisticated and effective. Voting looks more like a dependent variable than the cause of anything.

If this portrait of the current situation is accurate, we need both an assessment and a strategy for improvement. Foucault proposes some theses about assessment and strategy at the outset of “Security, Territory, Population”:

I do not think there is any theoretical or analytical discourse which is not permeated or underpinned in one way or another by something like an imperative discourse. However, in the  theoretical domain, the imperative discourse that consists in saying “love this, hate that, this is good, that is bad, be for this, beware of that,” seems to me, at present at any rate, to be no more than an aesthetic discourse that can only be based on choices of an aesthetic order. And the imperative discourse that consists in saying “strike against this and do so in this way,” seems to me to be very flimsy when delivered from a teaching institution or even just on a piece of paper. … So, since there has to be an imperative, I would like the one underpinning the theoretical analysis we are attempting to be quite simply a conditional imperative of the kind: If you want to struggle, here are some key points, here are some lines of force, here are some constrictions and blockages. In other words, I would like these imperatives to be no more than tactical pointers. … So in all of this I will therefore propose only one imperative, but it will be categorical and unconditional: Never engage in polemics.

Contra Foucault, I would like to assert that the current system of elections (and much worse, of prisons) in the US is bad; that this is not a merely aesthetic judgment; that making such judgments is worthwhile if you defend them; and that effective polemics are badly needed. But I take Foucault’s point that a paper argument against the status quo can be valueless or arbitrary. As always, the question “What should we do?” requires tough-minded analysis that is about strategy as well as facts and values. Specifically, if we want to defend the Progressive Era ideal of voting, we must take seriously the deep shift toward what Foucault called “bio-power” in the society as a whole.

See also:when society becomes fully transparent to the state; qualms about Behavioral Economics; citizenship in the modern American republic: change or decline?

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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