On Foucault and Raison d’Etat
The Parasitism of the Modern Nation State in Disregard to the Will of the People
What is raison d’Etat? Well, Chemnitz says, for example, it is something that allows departure from all “the public, particular, and fundamental laws of whatever kind they may be.” In fact, raison d’Etat must command, not by “sticking to the laws,” but, if necessary, it must command “the laws themselves, which must adapt to the present state of the republic.”
In “Security, Territory, Population”, Michel Foucault takes the reader from the ancient pastoral form of governance and into the form of governance used by the modern nation state. He examines the former roots of governance as viewed by both the ancient Greeks and Hebrews, and how this was changed and expanded upon by the religious state of the Christian West. He then went onto to examine how the nature of the state changed after the Reformation and Renaissance into the secular, self-perpetuating state, which is where I would like to examine most closely what he says, as I believe this will be a revelation to many of my readers.
The State in a Permanent State of Exception
What is raison d’Etat? Well, Chemnitz says, for example, it is something that allows departure from all “the public, particular, and fundamental laws of whatever kind they may be.” In fact, raison d’Etat must command, not by “sticking to the laws,” but, if necessary, it must command “the laws themselves, which must adapt to the present state of the republic.” So, the coup d’Etat does not break with raison d’Etat. It is an element, an event, a way of doing things that, as something that breaches the laws, or at any rate does not submit to the laws, falls entirely within the general horizon, the general form of raison d’Etat.
Here Foucault is talking about how a coup d’Etat does not break with raison d’Etat because it is just one of many tools the state has to preserve itself. This might seem like a very specific situation, a very specific event, which may or may not delegitimize the state, but it is not. It is merely one of many tools of the state to ensure its survival – a sovereign ban, or state of exception, if you will. He goes on to say that:
But what, then, is specific in the coup d’Etat that makes it more than just one expression among others of raison d’Etat? well, raison d’Etat, which by its nature does not have to abide by the laws, and which in its basic functioning is always exceptional in relation to public, particular, and fundamental laws, usually does not respect the laws. It does not respect them in the sense of yielding to positive, moral, natural, and divine laws because they are stronger, but it yields to them and respects them insofar as, if you like, it posits them as an element of its own game. In any case, raison d’Etat is fundamental with regard to these laws, but makes use of them in its usual functioning precisely because it deems them necessary or useful.
Here he states quite plainly that the nation state will only obey the laws so long as it is convenient to do so. If the laws laid down become an inconvenience to the operation or survival of the state, they will either be changed to the state’s advantage, or disregarded entirely. Thomas Jefferson had a lot to say about this when he said:
We must bind both criminals and governments with the chains of the constitution, so that the second does not become the legalized version of the first.
Unfortunately, not even constitutions can effectively bind governments or criminals from breaking the laws that have been laid down for their governance, as well as for the governance of the populace. The state exists purely for itself – for its own propagation and its own survival – and not for the benefit of the populace unless this is in line with the self-preservation of the state. The state of exception is not nearly as exceptional as one might like to think.
However, there will be times when raison d’Etat can no longer make use of these laws and due to a pressing and urgent event must of necessity free itself from them. In the name of what? in the name of the state’s salvation. It is this necessity of the state with regard to itself that, at a certain moment, will push raison d’Etat to brush aside the civil, moral, and natural laws that it had previously wanted to recognize and had incorporated into its game. Necessity, urgency, the need to save the state itself will exclude the game of these natural laws and produce something that in a way will only be the establishment of a direct relationship of the state with itself when the keynote is necessity and safety.
This passage illustrates what I have been saying above – that the self-preservation of the state comes before the rule of law or any constitutional considerations. One example of this is in how the US put Guantanamo Bay outside the rule of law, making the inmates Homo Sacer, or ‘bare life’, so that the state could deal with them as they wished. Another example would be the internment camps of the British Empire during the Kenyan Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s and the state of emergency (state of exception) there.
The coup d’Etat is the state acting of itself on itself, swiftly, immediately, without rule, with urgency and necessity, and dramatically. The coup d’Etat is not therefore a takeover of the state by some at the expense of others. It is the self-manifestation of the state itself. It is the assertion of raison d’Etat, of [the raison d’Etat] that asserts that the state must be saved, whatever forms may be employed to enable one to save it. The coup d’Etat, therefore, is an assertion of raison d’Etat, and a self-manifestation of the state.
Again, going back to the specifics of a state of exception which allows the state to act upon itself in order to preserve the state in its entirety, the coup d’Etat is just one manifestation of this tendency for self-preservation, irrespective of the wishes of the populace. The coup d’Etat is not unusual in and of itself – it is just viewed as unusual by the populace because they really do not expect it to happen, when in reality, as Foucault and I have stated above, it is just another tool of the state. Other states of exception may be declared en masse instead of the coup d’Etat – curfews, proscription of organisations deemed to be a threat to the state, declarations of war, states of emergency, and so on. One could even view the state of emergency as being a coup d’Etat on the civil populace rather than on the state itself, and a declaration of war as being a potential coup d’Etat on a foreign state if invasion is the intention.
The state exists for itself and not for the populace. The state governs the populace whether they want it to or not, and the state will act against the populace, or upon itself, in order to preserve itself. Therefore, the state is not a benign entity acting in the interests of its populace, no matter what the government of the day might wish to claim. The raison d’Etat is about self-preservation and nothing else, and laws will be suspended where they get in the way of this state self-preservation.
Michel Foucault, “Security, Territory, Population” pages 261-262