Because I am writing a book in the real world for my real job, I am enjoying re-reading a lot of Foucault. If you want to read philosophy that gives you ideas for games, Foucault may be the best option of all - not least because he is one of the very few philosophers who is fun to read.
In the 1975-1976 lectures at the College de France (collected in Society Must Be Defended, which like most of the other collections of his lectures is rather inappropriately titled) we find this passage, about the difference between the Savage and the Barbarian. It is long but, as is often the case, worth reading and digesting.
The barbarian is the opposite of the savage...the savage is basically a savage who lives in a state of savagery together with other savages; once he enters into a relationship of a social kind, he ceases to be a savage. The barbarian, in contrast, is somebody who can be understood, characterised and defined only in relation to a civilization, and to the fact that he exists outside of it. There can be no barbarian unless an island of civilization exists somewhere, unless he lives outside it, and unless he fights it. And the barbarian’s relationship with that speck of civilization - which the barbarian despises, and which he wants - is one of hostility and permanent warfare.
The barbarian cannot exist without the civilization he is trying to destroy and appropriate. The barbarian is always the man who stalks the frontiers of States, the man who stumbles into the city walls. Unlike the savage, the barbarian does not emerge from some natural backdrop to which he belongs. He appears only when civilization already exists, and only when he is in conflict with it. He does not make his entrance into history by founding a society, but by penetrating a civilization, setting it ablaze and destroying it. I think that the first point, or the difference between the barbarian and the savage, is this relationship with a civilization, and therefore with a history that already exists. There can be no barbarian without a preexisting history: the history of the civilization he sets ablaze. What is more, and unlike the savage, the barbarian is not a vector for exchange. The barbarian is essentially the vector for something very different from exchange: he is the vector for domination. Unlike the savage, the barbarian takes possession and seizes; his occupation is not the primitive cultivation of the land, but plunder.
His relationship with property is, in other words, always secondary: he always seizes existing property; similarly, he makes others serve him. He makes others cultivate his land, tend his horses, prepare his weapons, and so on. His freedom is based solely upon the freedom others have lost. And in his relationship with power, the barbarian, unlike the savage, never surrenders his freedom. The savage is a man who has in his hands, so to speak, a plethora of freedom which he surrenders in order to protect his life, his security, his property, and his goods. The barbarian never gives up his freedom. And when he does acquire a power, acquire a king or elect a chief, he certainly does not do so in order to diminish his own share of right but, on the contrary, to increase his strength, to become an even stronger plunderer, a stronger thief and rapist, and to become an invader who is more confident of his own strength. The barbarian establishes a power in order to increase his own individual strength. For the barbarian, the model government is, in other words, necessarily a military government, and certainly not one that is based upon the contracts and transfer of civil rights that characterize the savage.
So we can well understand why, in modern juridico-anthropological thought - and even in today’s bucolic and American Utopias - the savage is, despite it all and even though it has to be admitted that he has done a few bad things and has a few faults, always the noble savage. Indeed, how could he not be noble, given that his specific function is to exchange and to give - in accordance with his own best interests, obviously, but in a form of reciprocity in which we can, if you like, recognize the acceptable - and juridical - form of goodness? The barbarian, in contrast, has to be bad and wicked, even if we have to admit that he does have certain qualities. He has to be full of arrogance and has to be inhuman, precisely because he is not the man of nature and exchange; he is the man of history, the man of pillage and fires, he is the man of domination. “A proud, brutal people, without a homeland, and without laws,” said Mably (who was, as it happens, very fond of barbarians). The soul of the barbarian is great, noble, and proud, but it is always associated with treachery and cruelty. Speaking of barbarians, Bonneville said: “[T]hese adventurers lived only for war . . . the sword was their right and they exercised it without remorse.” And Marat, another great admirer of barbarians, described them as “poor, uncouth, without trade, without arts, but free.”
This, naturally enough, got me thinking amongst other things about orcs. Doesn't Foucault's description of "the barbarian" here remind you of Tolkien's orcs, and those of his imitators? I'm sure, in fact, that Tolkien had some of these thoughts in mind when he was describing his orcs as a kind of external opposition, existing only in opposition to civilization and living a purely military existence with the aims only of theft and conquest. (Although not, of course, remotely free.)
Tolkien's imitators, like the creators of D&D and Warhammer, also played on this theme. In fact, what Foucault is describing is even more fitting for the Warhammer greenskins I knew as a youngster in the early 90s - as a kind of parasitic satanic enemy of the civilized world: "poor, uncouth, without trade, without arts, but free". And free in the true, non-equal, sense of freedom which Foucault earlier identifies in the same course of lectures. The freedom which means being able to trample on the freedom of others rather than the "weak and abstract" type of libertarian freedom which consists in just being free as long as one doesn't infringe on other people's freedoms. (Foucault asks rhetorically at one stage, "What would be the point in being free, and what, in concrete terms, would it mean, if one could not trample on the freedom of others?" He might well have been channeling Grom the Paunch.)
It seems to me, though - and this may be entirely impressionistic - that at some point that view of orcs became a bit unfashionable. When I came back to RPGs and Warhammer and whatnot in the mid-2000s, it seemed to me that everywhere you looked, on forums and elsewhere, that orcs were being rehabilitated and reinterpreted as more akin to Foucault's savage. Fundamentally misunderstood and with the potential to be educated out of savagery. "It has to be admitted that he has done a few bad things and has a few faults," but the orc was conceptualised as being more interestingly presented as a sort of alternative to humans - the opposition between the two being thought of as simply a function of misunderstanding that could be remedied.
There is something very teenage about that rejection of "your father's orc". In actual fact, of course, the Tolkien/Warhammer understanding of orcs is far deeper and richer. The notion of a sort of looking-glass creature which exists not only in opposition to us but to oppose us, and which intends to appropriate our power, wealth and prosperity in order to destroy us, is extremely interesting. A looking-glass creature, or a product of the shadows as we are a product of the light.
A short section prior to all this discussion of barbarians and savages, Foucault paraphrases Boulainvilliers as follows: "Empires...rise and fall into decadence depending on how the light of the sun shines upon their territory." I found this stunningly interesting. What did he mean by that? Basically that Empires rise and fall cyclically. But let's take it literally: Empires rise and fall depending on how the light of the sun shines upon their territory.
If we are products of the light and orcs are the product of the dark, they live within the dark as much as we live outside of it.
Imagine a world in which a day is extremely long: let's say, a century. The globe spins extremely slowly on its axis. Humans live where it is light. Orcs where it is dark. In the places where day bleeds into night - at the edge of the light/dark, if you like - is a constant shifting front of conquest and retreat: the orcs conquer and take as the dark slowly advances; the humans pack their bags and flee, trying to stay in the light. On the other side of the globe, the orcs are in retreat as the dark recedes, and human pioneers and settlers colonise the bleak barren wilderness that is slowly revealing itself to the day after 100 years of night.