The Automatic Earth—Michel Foucault’s seminal work Discipline and Punish explored the extreme institutionalization of “discipline” in modern Western society, as best exemplified by the evolution of the modern penal system. He illustrated this transformation by contrasting medieval public executions with the wholly distinct system of punishment we have today. The former was a stage for the sovereign (usually a King) to exhibit physical punishment on a criminal for violating the laws of the land, which were seen as an extension of the sovereign’s body, and was designed to explicitly make the public aware of the sovereign’s absolute power.
According to Foucault, this non-uniform system of public punishment eventually had the unintended consequence of creating public resentment for the sovereign, as the oppressed people would begin to identify with the suffering of the punished. This dynamic was evidenced by the violent riots that would erupt in support of prisoners during public executions. The powerful sovereign could no longer continue to maintain its domination while its political legitimacy was being undermined by such adverse reactions. These public displays may have revealed the extent of the sovereign’s authority, but they were too disorderly for the modern state’s purposes.
It is no coincidence that the modern penal system evolved along with the emergence of industrial production as the dominant economic force in Western society. The latter was a system entirely focused on increasing efficiency, where students, workers and soldiers alike were trained to be more obedient, faster and stronger in every aspect of their designated functions. Modern states facilitated this process of immense wealth production by instituting high levels of order on their citizens, or what Foucault would term “discipline”. It was not really a tool for the Kings and Monarchs of old, but rather was more useful for controlling the populations of emerging democratic states [emphasis mine]:
Historically, the process by which the bourgeoisie became in the course of the eighteenth century the politically dominant class was masked by the establishment of an explicit, coded and formally egalitarian juridical framework, made possible by the organization of a parliamentary, representative regime. But the development and generalization of disciplinary mechanisms constituted the other, dark side of these processes. The general juridical form that guaranteed a system of rights that were egalitarian in principle was supported by these tiny, everyday, physical mechanisms, by all those systems of micro-power that are essentially non-egalitarian and asymmetrical that we call the disciplines. [Foucault, Michel (1975). Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison, New York: Random House (p.222)]
Foucault pointed out the striking similarities of the prisons, schools, hospitals (especially “mental” institutions), military barracks, office buildings and factories that had been established in the modern state, as they were all designed around specialized functions, regimented schedules and high degrees of observation and control. These institutions even shared very similar physical architectures and were typically legitimized by an underlying “scientific” foundation, whether that be criminology, psychology, medicine or economics. It was their ultimate goal to internalize strict discipline within the individuals themselves, so they would automatically follow these societal “norms” without questioning any of their reasons or results. Anyone who strays too far from the expected behaviors are labeled as part of the “delinquent class”, and are deemed to be in need of reform, rehabilitation, treatment or punishment.