Friday, December 9, 2011

Foucault's The Great Confinement vs. Lebensraum

On page 46 of Madness and Civilization Foucault writes, “Confinement, that massive phenomenon, the signs of which are found all across eighteenth-century Europe, is a ‘police’ matter. Police, in the precise sense that the classical epoch gave to it – that is, the totality of measures which make work possible and necessary for all those who could not live without it; the question Voltaire would soon formulate, Colbert’s contemporaries had already asked: ‘Since you have established yourselves as a people, have you not yet discovered the secret of forcing all the rich to make all the poor work? Are you still ignorant of the first principles of the police?’”

Further down he writes, “Let us return to the first moments of the ‘Confinement,’ and to the royal edict of April 27, 1656, that led to the creation of the Hopital General. From the beginning, the institution set itself the task of preventing ‘mendicancy and idleness as the source of all disorders.’ In fact, this was the last of the great measures that had been taken since the Renaissance to put an end to unemployment or at least to begging. In 1532, the Parlement of Paris decided to arrest beggars and force them to work in the sewers of the city, chained in pairs . . . a decree of Parlement dated 1606 ordered the beggars of Paris to be whipped in the public square, branded on the shoulder, shorn, and then driven from the city; to keep them from returning, an ordinance of 1607 established companies of archers at all the city gates to forbid entry to indigents.”

But with the Hopital, “for the first time, purely negative measures of exclusion were replaced by a measure of confinement; the unemployed person was no longer driven away or punished; he was taken in charge, at the expense of the nation but at the cost of his individual liberty. Between him and society, an implicit system of obligation was established: he had the right to be fed, but he must accept the physical and moral constraint of confinement. . . .”

In England “In 1622 [two years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock] appeared a pamphlet, Grievous Groan for the Poor, attributed to Thomas Dekker, which emphasizing the danger, condemns the general negligence: ‘Though the number of the poor do daily increased, all things yet worketh for the worst in their behalf; . . . many of these parishes turneth forth their poor, yea, and their lusty labourers that will not work . . . to beg, filch, and steal for their maintenance, so that the country is pitifully pestered with them.’ It was feared that they would overrun the country, and since they could not, as on the Continent, cross the border into another nation, it was proposed that they be ‘banished and conveyed to the New-found Land, the East and West Indies.’

Foucault’s book isn’t about those out-of-work lusty labourers and “criminals” shipped off to North America and Australia, but it is worth pausing to think about them. Those who were sent, or requested to be sent, to these new lands endured tremendous hardships, but such hardships seemed preferable to what those who stayed had to endure. And we of Australia, Canada & the U.S. could put off for many years having to establish a system of “confinement” because we could send our malcontents and troublemakers beyond the frontier where they would be killed by natives or the environment or set up new communities and with no help from the people who sent them expand their borders.

Frederick Jackson Turner in his essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” described the effect of the frontier in glowing terms. It was in the West and not the East where the rugged American identity was forged. The frontier conferred on this rugged individual the power strength to tame the wilderness. This was an attractive concept to many in Europe with (seemingly) no such option. Friedrich Ratzel visited North America in 1873 and read Turner’s thesis; which later German propagandists used to argue the right of the German race to expand within Europe for Lebensraum.

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