“Society Must be Defended” Read-In

I decided to initiate an event bringing together social science students this coming April. I was inspired by my own research, contemporary political events and what I have been reading. The premise of the event is that we are at an opportune moment to come together as the potential next generation of social scientists, including my fellow anthropologists, to ask ourselves what direction we are going with our research as a collective body. I feel this to be a very poignant question seeing as I think there is lack of clear and strategic vision on the part of people trying to grasp the complexity of our human inhabited world. Our research is also inherently political, whether we like it or not, so we are either going to withdraw from that, or take ownership and responsibility for it.

Yesterday I came across another social science initiative, albeit one focused on my discipline of anthropology, also reacting to the contemporary political moment, in particular the inauguration of the new President of the US. It was a call by a couple of US anthropologists to hold a Read-In during the inauguration ceremony of Michel Foucault’s “Society Must be Defended”. I must admit I found the the choice of staying in and reading a dead person somewhat ironic for socio-cultural anthropologists, when both the Women’s Marches and the those attending the Inauguration were two prime informant groups to go and hang out with and do what anthropologists are meant to be good at doing, talking and observing people to reach some insights. Anyway I diverge. The read-in was not by opposition to the Women’s Marches that also took place, but could either be seen as complimentary or an alternative. The complications and possibilities of the Women’s Marches are dealt with deftly here.

In terms of the Read-In, I read the piece as well as many of the preceding chapters. Here is a (optional) summary of what I constructively understood from “Society Must be Defended”:

In “Society Must be Defended” Foucault deconstructs the very idea behind the the title itself. He explains that the running of peoples lives by the State is almost always inherently based on racism. Where racism is about one group of people purifying itself of its sub-groups. He focuses on this as part of his wider argument about State Politics as a form of continuous War between ‘races’.

What is crucial to note is that ‘race’ in this context means one group taking it upon themselves to ‘struggle’ against another group. Thus the idea of class warfare to Foucault can be racist on both sides, or however many groups chose to engage in struggling against another group. Foucault specifically states that changing economic conditions or privileges of different groups in itself need not racist by his definition, but the formulation of groups in a State against each other as needing to struggle to cleanse themselves of the other sub-groups is racist.

Hence for Foucault the reality of a society that is State governed, is that Society is integrally ‘societies’ that are struggling against each other. And that struggles for removing another race, class or group are racist.

The precondition given for this reading was that the proposers believe that “this is not a new political reality for many but rather a kind of contemporary culmination and re-entrenchment of the structures of power and oppression that underpin the entirety of the national political project”.

I agree, though I find that this very sentence and reading could have been equally shared at Barack Obama’s inauguration. I found Foucault’ an interesting choice because his work seems to accidentally inform the thinking of both the ‘many’ who voted for Donald Trump this time, as it did for the ‘many’ that voted for Barack Obama in 2009. It is my opinion they were both decisions by many voters, that could have based on this reading. In the sense that “what will bring change in my life is change to the State” and “the State is currently racist toward me“, and “the best person to do that is the one that least fits the ‘identity’ of the State“. To give the US voters credit they tried out the ‘liberal’ black man first.

However my own opinions on the US election are not really relevant. I simply want to point out to my US colleagues that doubling-down with Foucault’s work implies a Foucauldian political strategy, and this would simply be continuing as usual. I don’t think this has been good enough for either ‘the many’ they refer to or the other many manys, such as the deplorables who helped elect Donald Trump. Hence I recommend John Sanbonmatsu’s ‘The Postmodern Prince’ to those who proposed or read “Society Must be Defended”, to decolonise their political strategy of Foucault, and strategically consider their options through the political thinking of Gramsci.

But what is the actual relevance of this for UK social scientists, including anthropologists? We now live in globalised world, in some sense one that is versus nationalist worlds. I do not think there is much good theory that has yet to grasp the complexity of a globalised world in the anthropocene, as well as the nationalist reaction to that. However we can have an aim and we can find methods to better explore it, and new theory that doesn’t twist the glocal world to our old understandings will come. Whilst Trump evidentially likes all the attention, I think UK social scientists attention needs to be both turning inward to the nationalist context at home, and outward to the ‘beyond US national politics’ global context.

While I could make my own suggestions of readings, methods and aims, I have not been around long enough to consider myself as actually knowing what my social science peers already know/read/do, and therefore really being able to suggest something from a place of being informed. Instead I hope to meet my community in person in April to actually share where we are at, and go from there.

Abraham (Lead Organiser)


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