Michel Foucault

There are two streams of thought in the first chapters of The Birth of Biopolitics by Michel Foucault. One stream is a history of the changes from monarchy to liberalism and then to neoliberalism*. Foucault’s title probably springs from an earlier work, The History of Sexuality. In Part Five of this work, Foucault describes the power of the sovereign, the king, as the power to decide life and death. He discusses the transition from this form of sovereign power to the situation today, where the point of sovereignty is to improve the lives of the people.

The right which was formulated as the “power of life and death” was in reality the right to take life or let live. Its symbol, after all, was the sword. Perhaps this juridical form must be referred to a historical type of society in which power was exercised mainly as a means of deduction … a subtraction mechanism, a right to appropriate a portion of the wealth, a tax of products, goods and services, labor and blood, levied on the subjects. Power in this instance was essentially a right of seizure: of things, time, bodies, and ultimately life itself; it culminated in the privilege to seize hold of life in order to suppress it. P 136.

This understanding of the role of the sovereign “was replaced by a power to foster life or disallow it to the point of death.” 138, emphasis in original. The role of the government as sovereign is to enlarge the sphere of human life to the fullest extent, using all the tools of government to enable people to enable people to search out their own form of satisfaction of needs, to meet the expectation of people for health and comfort, and to allow the full scope of human development. This is the Biopolitics of which Foucault writes.

In The Birth of Biopolitics, Foucault describes this view of the sovereign towards the population. He adds that the goal of the sovereign was to expand his control over more and more lands, in an effort to create an empire, like the Roman Empire. Foucault finds the beginning of the transition in the mid-1600s, with the Peace of Westphalia. The nations that were parties to this treaty recognized the rights of each to sovereignty in their own lands. Foucault says that the new governing idea was “raison d’etat”, which means roughly national interest, the basis of the nation-state. A big part of this change was the recognition that all nation-states would have the same right to exist. The goal of empire was replaced by something like co-existence and relatively peaceful competition over resources. People began to formulate new ideas about how to organize the government, and created theories about how to manage the state in this new context. The government exercised total control inside its borders and competed with other nation states outside its borders.

By the mid 1700s, governments controlled the minutest details of business and life inside the boundaries. Foucault explains that this form of government needed a limitation. That limitation turned out the be the idea of the “political economy”. This term means at one level the understanding of production and management of wealth, and at a broader lever, it means the strategies the government follows to increase the wealth of the state. In the end, it means the way people understand “…the organization, distribution, and limitation of powers in a society.” In this sense, political economy is a form of discourse, a way to look at the actual behavior of the government and evaluate it. So, for Foucault, the point of this discourse is to examine the actions taken by the government in terms of their intent and their outcomes. This discourse doesn’t look at natural rights or justifications for the exercise of power, merely at outcomes.

Finally, the last point explaining how and why political economy was able to appear as the first form of this new self-limiting governmental ratio is that if there is a nature specific to the objects and operations of governmentality, then the consequence of this is that governmental practice can only do what it has to do by respecting this nature. If it were to disrupt this nature, if it were not to take it into account or go against laws determined by this naturalness specific to the objects it deals with, it would immediately suffer negative consequences. In other words, there will be either success or failure; success or failure, rather than legitimacy or illegitimacy, now become the criteria of governmental action. So, success replaces [legitimacy]. P. 16

Eventually it turns out that there is a set of laws governing the production and circulation of wealth, and they can be discovered by economists. The first and most basic of these laws is the principle of “laissez-nous faire”, leave us alone. This idea becomes the principle of self-limitation of government practice, not just in economic matters, but in every matter. Foucault says “I think that this is broadly what is called “liberalism”.” P. 20.**

He goes on to say that US neo-liberalism is a reaction against, or criticism of, the liberalism of the New Deal and against the “main doctrinal adversary, Keynes”, coupled with a deep hatred of “the state-controlled economy, planning, and state interventionism on precisely those overall quantities to which Keynes attached such theoretical and especially practical importance.” P. 79.

So, this is one thread of the first part of The Birth of Biopolitics, an historical recapitulation of the emergence of neoliberalism. Next I’ll discuss Foucault’s analysis of this change, which is a more abstract rendering of this history. We will see what he means when he calls markets a “site of veridiction”.
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* This is part of a series on the problem of neoliberalism. I describe the overall point of the series here. http://my.firedoglake.com/masaccio/2014/03/07/a-starting-place-for-combatting-neoliberal-theory/

**In a footnote at P. 20, there is a detailed discussion of liberalism in this form.
For more on markets, see this post and the linked posts.