One of the most famous works of French post-modernist philosopher Michel Foucault was his book, “Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison“. It documents the transition from public displays of state justice in Western monarchies to the modern penal system of Western democratic governments. Foucault primarily viewed this transition as a means for centralized institutions to reinforce discipline and standardization among subject populations, using the great intellectual and technological advances which accompanied the industrial revolution to their benefit. According to Foucault, it was no coincidence that these two historical developments accompanied each other.
Instead of the modern penal system simply being the result of humanitarian concerns, it was primarily a means of exerting state control in a more efficient and powerful way. Foucault pointed out the similarities in physical structure and operation between prisons, factories, schools, hospitals (mental asylums especially) and military barracks. These institutions all employ temporal and spatial restrictions, constant observation, performance evaluations, labeling/classification systems and feedback mechanisms. At a certain point, those subject to these institutions internalize the disciplinary mechanisms and self-regulate their behavior out of desire for social and material rewards or out of fear of similar punishments.
Each disciplinary institution is usually justified by a corresponding academic discipline, such as criminology, psychology, medicine, economics, etc. I have previously written on Foucault’s theories in the context of neoliberal finance, which had experienced an unprecedented explosion since the 1970s and culminated in the global financial crisis of 2007-08. The institutional arbiter of speculative finance can be thought of as the U.S. currency reserve system established in Breton Woods and all associated organizations, such as U.S. multinational banking corporations, the Federal Reserve and the International Monetary Fund. This system was structured to coerce people, households, businesses and nations into taking on debts they could not afford relative to their cash flows, and to alienate or punish those entities which refused to subject themselves to debt servitude.
“In 1971, the gold convertibility of the dollar was unilaterally revoked by the Nixon Administration, effectively making the dollar, as a piece of printed paper or its electronic equivalent, the sole basis for international exchange. Gold-backing of the dollar had been the one limiting factor for how much “liquidity” could be generated within the system, and so the new stand-alone reserve currency allowed for greatly increased international financial activity.
It is key to understand that every U.S. dollar currently in circulation is backed by debt, meaning it was generated through the issuance of a loan and this loan created a corresponding liability. Therefore, the fact that more international corporations, governments and central banks were transacting in dollars essentially meant that they were accepting dollar-denominated debt for hard assets (most importantly oil), and all of the risks entailed by that debt.
Of course, on the way up the debt-fueled ladder of global economic growth, there was very little risk to accepting dollar transactions. In the wake of WWII, U.S. manufacturing and exportation of goods to a world in ruins led the country into a period of great economic prosperity and established the largest economy by a significant margin. Subsequently, with the domination of the financial services market, outsourcing of production, expansion of militaristic hegemony and provision of numerous domestic entitlements, the U.S. transitioned into a powerhouse consumer economy.
Americans had an insatiable appetite for the financed sales of products from other countries (especially China), which further encouraged these countries to transact in debt-dollars. A crucial instrument for managing and re-enforcing the debt-dollar discipline on the world was the “letter of credit”. For example, an issuing bank in Uzbekistan could grant a local importing business a letter of credit, which would serve as a conditional promise by the bank to pay a beneficiary in another country upon satisfaction of the letter’s terms and conditions.
The beneficiary may be a seller of equipment or materials in America, who must present the required documents to the issuing bank in order to draw on its payment rights. These secured transactions made it easier for international exporters/importers to do business without worrying about their legal rights in other countries, and also reduced their costs for financing transactions, since the issuing bank did not have to police the underlying sales contract.
The global debt-dollar discipline was thoroughly institutionalized through instruments such as letters of credit and organizations such as the IMF. As the factory disciplines its workers to be more docile and efficient, the debt-dollar institutions discipline their global constituents to take on increasing amounts of debt and consume more goods and services. More importantly, they discipline the constituents to become intrinsically attached to their financed lifestyles and the overarching institutions which manage the system.”
Foucault stated that he was merely describing the historical development of disciplinary mechanisms in modern society, rather than passing moral judgment on them. He also pointed out that some centralized mechanisms of discipline and punishment will always exist in human society, whether it be at the scale of the state and the political economy or that of the family unit and the individual. I find it fascinating how well Foucault’s insightful ideas mesh with the truths of the Bible, even though Biblical literalism is probably the last thing French post-modernist thinkers would endorse. Foucault refrained from moral judgments, but I believe it is self-evident how morally backwards modern disciplinary society has become from a Biblical perspective.
The birth of human government can be traced back to God’s command to Noah and his sons, when he said “whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed“(Genesis 9:6). This implies a civil system of laws and human enforcement of those laws. The laws of God to be enforced by men obviously expand further from here, and result in a very detailed system of discipline and punishment for the Hebrew people. After the work of Jesus Christ on the Cross, however, the need for theocratic disciplinary mechanisms was diminished greatly. People who accepted and trusted in Christ’s sacrifice for their salvation could self-regulate their behavior and bring themselves into accordance with God’s will through the grace and guidance of the Holy Spirit (John 14:26).
It is the teachings of Jesus that provide the foundation for modern pillars of human society, such as separation of church (religious authority) and state. When the Pharisees asked Jesus whether it was “lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not“, in an attempt to trap him between fidelity to state power and fidelity to spiritual power, Jesus responded “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:15-17). The trap had failed spectacularly, because Jesus had made the distinction between worldly obedience and spiritual obedience. More than that, he had demonstrated that the former is simply a means of reinforcing the latter; that peacefully paying taxes to Caesar was a means of showing devotion to God.
The apostle Peter expounds on this concept further in his first epistle, when he says “servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust” (1 Peter 2:18). He tells us that “if when you do good and suffer it for you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God” (1 Peter 2:20). It ultimately does not matter what masters we must submit to in this world, or what we may be forced to do as a result, as long as our true loyalty remains to God. Every time we do good by following the example of Christ, by refusing to revile or threaten others when we are reviled or made to suffer by them, and by trusting in our just God (1 Peter 2:23), we are actually expressing obedience and submission to God. (compare Romans 13:1).
The problem is that modern disciplinary society has attempted, rather successfully, to make obedience to human institutions an end in and of itself. Jeremy Bentham, a key philosophical figure in the modern disciplinary transition, designed a structure called the “panopticon“. This structure consisted of a watchtower in the center of a circular building, such as a prison, which allowed the managers/staff to observe those housed in the building without them being aware exactly when they were being watched. The idea was that it would help the inmates, patients, students, etc. internalize disciplinary rules, because they would never know when their undisciplined behavior was being observed. Bentham described it as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example“.
That theme has since become the essence of modern disciplinary society. Our mindful spirits have been subjugated by human institutions in which we now place our loyalty. We have been convinced that these schools, universities, banks, corporations and governments are deserving of our complete trust and obedience; that they are worthy of being our true masters. In that context, spiritual submission and obedience to God has become hollowed out and meaningless. Our submission to human authorities has stopped being about finding favor in the sight of the Lord, and has become a system of dogmatic faith itself.
Jesus’ words ring true now more than ever – “no one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other…you cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24). The separation of church and state in the West is rapidly disappearing, as the state and disciplinary institutions supported by the state further develop their own technocratic, profit-based theology of submission and obedience for the masses. These are the institutions that seek to replace the “control of righteousness” with the control of propaganda; to transform the “slaves of righteousness” into the “slaves of sin” (Romans 6:17-18).
Foucault was right – human beings must always submit to some mechanism of discipline and punishment in society. The only question is whether that mechanism will be from other fallen humans who wish to exploit the entire species, or a perfectly just and loving God, the Holy Spirit, who wishes to deliver the entire species from evil. Will we be scared into submission by human institutions that prey on our fear of social alienation and material punishment, or willingly allow God to convict us of our guilt in regard to our sins (John 16:8), leading us away from temptation and into righteousness? With such willing spirits, we can submit to God’s loving discipline and his just punishments, and obey a righteous master once again.
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.