Foucault on anthropoliteia: “The police’s true object is man.”

Michel Foucault, discussing Louis Turquet de Mayerne’s 1611 treatise on the police Aristo-democratic Monarchy:

  1. The “police” appears as an administration heading the state, together with the judiciary, the army, and the exchequer.  True.  yet in fact, it embraces everything else.  Turquet says so: “It branches out into all the people’s conditions, everything they do or undertake.  Its field comprises justice, finance, and the army.”
  2. The police includes everything.  But from an extremely particular point of view.  Men and things are envisioned as to their relationships: men’s coexistence n a territory; their relationships as to property; what they produce; what is exchanged on the market.  It also considers how they live, the diseases and accidents that can befall them.  What the police sees to is a live, active, productive man.  Turquet employs a remarkable expression: “The police’s true object is man.”
  3. …What are the aims pursued?  they fall into two categories.  First, the police has to do with everything providing the city with adornment, form and splendor.  Splendor denotes not only the beauty of the state ordered to perfection but also to its strength, its vigor…. Second… to foster working and trading relations between men…. There again, the word Turquet uses is important: the police must ensure “communication” among men, in the broad sense of the word–otherwise, men wouldn’t be able to live, or their lives would be precarious, poverty-stricken, and perpetually threatened…. And here, we can make out what is, I think, an important idea.  As a form of rational intervention wielding political power over men, the role of the police is to supply them with a little extra life–and, by so doing, supply the state with a little extra strength.  This is done by controlling “communication,” that is, the common activities of individuals (work, production, exchange, accommodation). (bold emphasis my own)

Foucault M. 2000. “Omnes et Singulatim”: toward a critique of political reason. In Power, ed. JD Faubion, pp. 318-319. New York: New Press (see the text for free here)


4 thoughts on “Foucault on anthropoliteia: “The police’s true object is man.”

  1. socdeputy says:

    What I find so fascinating about Foucault’s discussion of the “police” is how much the 17th century version of “policing” does not look anything like contemporary U.S. policing. It is hard to believe that the same name can be used at all to describe past and present institutions! The police certainly do not “police” in the manner described by Foucault. As nearly every observer of police organizations and practices has commented, the police are neither rational, efficient, or particularly good at controlling the population. David Garland has made this point about Foucault in regards to his discussions of punishment.


  2. Sure part of Foucault’s point is that what we mean my “police” is not necessarily what 17th century political critics meant (an institution vs. a domain of government, etc). But what stuck me in the passage, when I was reading it this last time, was the modesty of the “little,” I guess.

    To make the interaction between citizens a little more happy, and thereby to make the collectivity (municipality, community, state, whathaveyou) a little bit better. Doesn’t that sound a lot like what “police work” still is? That’s what the people I was hanging out would ave said, in some of their more positive moments.

    I can’t say i know too much about david garland’s critique, but I’m pretty sure foucault never said, nor would he agree with the idea that, “the police are rational, efficient, or particularly good at controlling the population.” Whatever Foucault means by “rationality,” for example, it is not a singular thing. For one, he repeats over an over again that there is no single Rationality (capital r); for another his whole point is that “the police” is one end of an almost irreconcilable duality in Western political thinking (and is therefore itself riven with contradictions).


  3. Pingback: CFP Anthropoliteia-sponsored panel at the 2014 AAA Meetings | Anthropoliteia: the anthropology of policing

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