Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Book Review: Discipline & Punish by Michael Foucault

A truly thought provoking book on the nature and purpose of punishment. In the final analysis, Foucault argues that the purpose of punishment is to insure the docility and utility of the population in support of the goals of the ruling elite. Punishment then operates at two levels, overt and covert. Overt punishment being the police power of the state, covert punishment being the penalties of societal institutions in the society (schools, the workplace, religion.. .what Foucault calls disciplinary society). The optimal situation for a ruling elite is to have the population internalize the norms of the elite and police itself with very little external force (social order with maximum economy).

The key issue then becomes, “Who rules?” In a small, stable, homogeneous society with internalized-shared values there would be very little need for punishment. The clash of values produces deviations from the “norm”.. .and thus anti-social behavior (crime). Every crime is a revolt against the status quo.

In the post-9/l 1 world we may be seeing the emergence of the “rationalization of the means of control” over mass populations. Technology offers the tools for the economic surveillance and tracking of people. As Foucault points out, continuous surveillance is the ultimate means of insuring that no one deviates from the norm. The question becomes what values will control the deployment of such technology. There are parallels between the challenge to current American civil liberties and privacy rights posed by the emergence of new “rationalizing” surveillance technology, and the loss of traditional rights suffered by 18th & 19th century workers during the Industrial Revolution that rationalized the means of production. The book is helpful in that it establishes some fundamental questions about discipline and punishment that provide an analytical framework applicable to various societies in various times.

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