Like an American

Perhaps the ahistorical and, ultimately, utopian nature of the proposal to seal the borders and compel undocumented persons to self-deport can be brought into focus via a discussion of apparatuses of security and the mechanisms of discipline conducted by the obscure Foucault*. In his historical narrative, “the territorial sovereign became an architect of the disciplined space, but also, and almost at the same time, the regulator of a milieu, which involved not so much establishing limits and frontiers, or fixing locations, as above all and essentially, making possible, guaranteeing, and ensuring circulations: the circulation of people, merchandise, and air, et cetera.” He selects as an example of the “relationship of government to event” the problem of dearth or scarcity, defined as “’the present insufficiency of the amount of grain necessary for a nation’s subsistence.’” A typical pattern was assumed to develop from the scarcity of grain:

It is a state of scarcity, in fact, that raises prices. And, of course, the more prices rise, the more those possessing scarce objects are inclined to hoard them and monopolize them so that prices rise even more, and this occurs precisely when the most basic needs of the population are not being met.

In seventeenth- and eighteen-century France, the goal of government was to avoid this cycle of events. Because urban revolts are “the major thing for government to avoid,” scarcity the “scourge of population” and the “catastrophe, crisis” for government.

Two political and philosophical judgments go hand-in-hand with this scenario of scourge and crisis that must be avoided. First, scarcity is thought as “inevitable misfortune.” “Food shortage is misfortune in the pure state, since its most immediate, most apparent factor is bad weather, drought, ice, excessive humidity, or anyway everything outside of one’s control…So, scarcity appears as one of the fundamental forms of bad fortune for a people and for a sovereign.” Second, scarcity is viewed from a moral perspective as a punishment for man’s evil human nature. This evil nature “will have an influence on scarcity by figuring as one of its sources, inasmuch as men’s greed – their need to earn, their desire to earn even more, their egoism – causes the phenomena of hoarding, monopolization, and withholding merchandise, which intensity the phenomena of scarcity.” Fallen nature and (mis)fortune are, for Foucault, the two frameworks for thought about scarcity.

The eighteenth-century governmental response to evil and misfortune in grain provisions is primarily juridical:

For a long time scarcity was countered by a system that I would say is both juridical and political, a system of legality and a system of regulations, which was basically intended to prevent food shortages, that is to say, not just to halt it or eradicate it when it occurs, but literally to prevent it and ensure that it cannot take place at all. This is a juridical and disciplinary system that, concretely, take the classical forms you are familiar with: price control, and especially control of the right to store; the prohibition on hoarding with the consequent necessity of immediate sale; limits on export, the prohibition on sending grain abroad with, as the simple restriction on this, the limitation of the extent of land under cultivation, because if the cultivation of grains is too extensive, the surplus from this abundance will result in a collapse of prices, so that the peasants will not break even.

If we substitute persons moving across the border for grain, how might Foucault help clarify the conditions that actually govern the situation? “Illegal immigration” or rather illegal movement of persons across the border is interdicted — viewed through a moral lense (as an evil) — by heavy apparatus, rules, and controls which enforce, and thereby eradicate, all illegal movement across the border. (Analogous discussion by Foucault of a town struck by plague: quarantine).

*Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the College de France 1977-1978, Lecture 18 January 1978.

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