Foucault – on Biopolitics

The aspect of power/knowledge best suited for adoption by those dissatisfied with traditional political economy, social psychology, or political theory, Foucault’s concept of biopolitics addresses the machinations of power on the historically inscribed body, as well as the diffusion of actual relations of power between such bodies. In the lecture series “Security, Territory, Population” and “The Birth of Biopolitics”, he delves into the details of the conditions of power relations in neoliberal societies. Cautious to distinguish liberal and neoliberal contexts from the commonsense notion of freedom, and to differentiate power relations from individual rights or privileges, his argument rests on the ideas developed in his edited works such as Discipline and Punish, or the end of History of Sexuality. Here, biopolitics takes on the characteristics of State apparatuses, but extends beyond them into the quotidian practices of material, discursive, and economic life.

Biopolitics operates across the range of institutions and governmental constructs to manage the population. Its mode of power, then, is biopower. (Hardt and Negri go on to position biopolitics in direct opposition to biopower, since they understand biopower as the machinations of sovereignty in the same conditions – this erasure of the historical distinction between the conditions under which sovereignty arises and those under which biopolitics arises reveals a secondary conflation, of the conditions of power with the practice of power, which serves no useful analytical purpose. Seeing conditions and practice as unique facets of a higher-order historical system proves both more robust and more less prone to sweeping generalizations.) For the purposes of these introductory essays, and the further purpose of a field statement on the topic, the relationship between biopolitics and biopower can be thought in instrumental terms.

In “The Birth of Biopolitics” lectures, Foucault derives the character of neoliberal society along these lines of power and politics of populations. In one early talk, he cuts to the heart of this description as it relates to both his earlier work and to the methods by which he arrives at his analyses. The market, he argues, is not just a realm of rules and regulations, trade and commerce. It also, and more fundamentally, comprises the grounds on which truth is tested for liberal government. Marking the emergence of this totalizing market at the end of the eighteenth century (perhaps to be expected), he then goes on to show how “regimes of veridiction” comprise the historical objects that bind his studies of sexuality, unreason, and penal systems. The important points of contact between those interests and the higher-order system of truth-telling under examination here raises a theoretical contradiction between the processes of market intervention versus legal jurisdiction. But, Foucault goes on to explain, neoliberalism “is not an economic government, it is a government of society … An enterprise society and a judicial society … are two faces of a single phenomenon.” Here we find the crux of neoliberal society, a form of government so consumed with the management of its population that it erases those ancient distinctions between judgment and action.

One section that bears further examination (along with many others), in a more extended form than is possible here, is his treatment of the notion of human capital. Less a question of labor as such, and more a complex of the elements inherited or acquired by the body, Foucault’s interrogation of the term troubles the waters of entrepreneurial and innovatory rhetoric. It also raises questions for contemporary analysis of perceived oppositions between technological and natural development in the realm of labor. The tendency to generalize economic rationale to all functions of life, not just the business world, finds a pointed critique here, grounded in the realization that theories of growth are at the heart of such tendencies. What is counted as worth knowing, in order to grow, reveals what is valued for consolidations of power.

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