Friday, September 28, 2012


A line in Foucault's lecture course Abnormal led me to consider the contemporary conditions of poverty. His line was about the outmoded concept of power as repressive and always wielded in the same direction, from the same source. He called that model of power "feudal." The model of power since the late 18th century, he says, is productive, and makes arrangements for production and circulation, not repression and deduction. This model of power cannot be confined to certain institutions, nor to a certain narrow range of relations.

I started to wonder if Foucault's view of power is starting to lose its explanatory power. The increasing wealth gap in the affluent parts of the world, the de-legitimation of social and political institutions, and the increase in poverty, suggested to me that the feudal model of power might be heading for a comeback.

On one level, it makes some sense to consider the emerging form of power to be feudal. The trope of the 1% versus the 99% expresses something like this: the 1% wield power over their societies, over the world, and over all resources. Democratic elections are basically meaningless exercises, because the power of concentrated wealth simply undermines any authority any elected representative might be willing to use to the benefit of citizens. Look at Greece and Spain. Look at the US.

Yeah, I thought, the superwealthy are reducing the rest of us to serfdom.

But there's a significant difference between feudalism and contemporary poverty. Serfs more or less belonged to the feudal lord, were basically required to do his bidding, and owned nothing. Serfs worked the land, the feudal lord accumulated wealth, and granted some portion of the product of their labor to the serfs -- sufficient to keep them working.

Contemporary poverty doesn't have that benefit. The very poor do not work. In a way, they are required not to work, for the profit of the superwealthy. Underemployment, part-time work, permatemped work is degraded. The work is degraded. This generates profit because the fantastic accumulation of wealth takes place these days by way of controlling how much gets produced, when, and where, and assuring that production only takes place under those circumstances. In contemporary poverty, you do not get to work the land.

Of course, there are many of our contemporary poor who do work the land, I'm aware of that. (Duh, I live in California.) Unlike serfs, they do not belong to the land they work, nor to the landowner. They do not belong anywhere except where their (note: temporary, and also illegal) work is required at a given moment. Otherwise, they are not allowed to be on the land.

Where do they very poor belong? I'm tempted to say nowhere. For the comfort and convenience of the wealthy, it is necessary that the very poor be dispatched, sent away, remain hidden. If you walk or ride your bike through enough of Turlock's streets, and pay attention to what you see, you'll find lots full of campers, in which people live. There is one in a parking lot behind a small hotel down our block. There might be 20 or 30 campers in there -- I'm talking about the kind of camper one might tow, not a 30-foot RV. The people living there are not serfs, because they have no land to work, even if they would have been granted permission to grow anything.

And this is to say nothing at all of those who do not even have a camper to their names, and who have no place at all that they have a right to be.

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