Yliniva, K. (2022) Precision Governance of Subjectivity – Future Trajectories of Education

Author: Kirsi Yliniva, PhD researcher, Education, University of Oulu. Affiliated to University of Helsinki and the Project Interrupting Future Trajectories of Precision Education Governance (FuturEd).

Precision Governance of Subjectivity – Future Trajectories of Education


We live in times when education governance is changing radically. Managing the future has become one of the main focuses in the global governance of education (Mertanen et. al., 2021). The governance of education with a view to the anticipated futures of society is a global phenomenon. Presentations about how the future education should look like are offered by national, supranational, public, and private policy agencies (Säntti et. al., 2021). Traditional education is seen as outdated and no longer answering to the needs for the development of student skills in the future. Education policies demand that every individual’s potential is realized and hence a better version of education is required based in evidence, life sciences, and learning (Mertanen et. al., 2021). Based on recent educational research, education governance is shifting to govern possible future(s) ever more precisely and that means the radical shift towards what Mertanen et. al. (2021) call precision education governance (PEG).  Key areas of PEG are i) global governance of education; ii) marketization, privatization and digitalization of education, and iii) behavioural and life sciences as the basis for governing future education.

In this essay, I consider how these changes in education governance and future trajectories of education are connected to neoliberal rationalities, using Michel Foucault’s theory of biopower, and considering what kind of subjectivities and agencies these shifts in education are shaping. I scrutinize what are neoliberalism and biopower, how they are present in societies and what kinds of subjectivities they demand. I argue that the current shifts in future education governance are part of the neoliberal project to govern subjectivity and exercise biopower at the level of life. I argue that the rationality behind neoliberalism is geared towards governing subjectivity rather than the economy as so often thought (eg. Harvey, 2005). Understanding the rationality and reasoning behind neoliberalism can help us navigate the current changes we are seeing in education and reflect on the possibilities and problems which these changes bring especially to political subjectivity and agency.

What is neoliberalism?

It is not surprising that education governance is shifting towards more precise governance of education and future(s). Precise governance of all areas of human life was the path for neoliberalism which Michel Foucault foresaw already more than 40 years ago when he developed his theory of biopolitics and biopower. Foucault explained in his two lecture series given at the College de France (1977-1979) called “Security, Territory and Population” and “The Birth of Biopolitics” how the historical development of power and resistances in Western societies (starting from early Christianity) made possible the birth of biopower and neoliberalism in the modern West. In his late works on sexuality and subjectivity, Foucault (1981) explains, how the human body and population became the central objects of governance in liberal modernity and hence biopolitics and use of biopower emerged for the first time in history. I argue in this essay that neoliberal biopower is still today the most influential rationality in education governance.

My understanding of neoliberalism differs from the hegemonic idea of it as a synonym for global capitalism, and hence  the view of it as an essentially economic ideology, including the development of entrepreneurial freedoms, free markets, individual liberty, consumer power, and the state’s withdrawal from society (see for example Harvey, 2005). Often Marx-inspired theorists see neoliberalism as a problem of class-based power and seek as solutions more economic justice, fair trade, and greater economic security (Harvey, 2005). Foucault-inspired theorists don’t usually see neoliberalism as primarily driven by economic needs but as a problem of liberal authority: the globalization and complexity of the world has brought crisis to traditional authority of state, nation, and community (Chandler, 2016). The crisis of authority appears also in the other traditional institutions like education, religion, and family. Today, especially traditional education is under heavy attacks, and seen as outdated especially by policy makers (see Mertanen et. al., 2021). This gives justification for policy makers to transform education in the ways they believe are needed because of trajectories of the future(s). Unfortunately, often these changes, for example open classrooms and the shift from pedagogy to learning, are not made by experts in education, and the effects they cause for the education and the subjectivities of children are not known.

I see that all the above mentioned phenomena, such as the rise of economical reasoning and crisis of traditional authorities, are connected to neoliberalism, and tell us something about its way to govern, and the rationalities driving it, and hence are valuable to examine.  Anyway, foremostly I understand neoliberalism in a Foucauldian way as a governing rationality targeted fundamentally at human subjectivities and agencies (Foucault, 2007; 2008; 1981; Chandler & Reid, 2016). In the neoliberal era we have seen the shift from political and democratic practices to the use of economical tools to achieve political and social goals and human wellbeing (Brown, 2015). The neoliberal aim is to govern targets in all areas in human life and modify and shape human subjectivities and agencies (Brown, 2015; Chandler & Reid, 2016; Brunila & Rossi, 2017).  This is also seen in education, globally and in Finland, where the formation of ideal subjectivities and agencies, through normalizing practices, and for example by using therapeutic tools, is widely noticed (Brunila, 2012; Brunila & Rossi, 2017). Education, like other traditional institutions, is undergoing a transformation of governance. The State is withdrawing from its responsibility for human wellbeing, security, economy, and education. Instead, the neoliberal state offers platforms and power increasingly to global corporations and apparatuses, for example through digitalization, marketization, and privatization of education. Neoliberal governance means shifts from hierarchies to networks, institutions to processes and self-organization (Brown, 2015). Hence, an essential element of neoliberalism is the redistribution of responsibility to smaller units, including to individual subjects, and the minimalization of direct, oppressive power. This leads to the conduct of subjects who can self-manage themselves, but at the same time be manageable and obey commands (Brown, 2015).

It is argued that neoliberalism is too vague a concept, changing temporally and geographically, made to signify so many different things that it is largely useless, and often only used by its critics (see Brown, 2015). Neoliberalism, as an ongoing rationality to govern is hard to grasp (Brown, 2015, pp. 49).  I understand neoliberalism as an unsettled concept, which bears many (and often negative) meanings, but at the same time and precisely because of it, I still see it has value for critical research. I find that the unsettled and changeable nature of neoliberalism makes it all the more interesting. A better grasp of neoliberal governance could bring improved understanding of the local and global educational and political governance we see today, and the rationalities behind it, and hence foresee its potential ways to evolve. As Foucault (2008) saw, as neoliberalism certainly has reasoning behind it. But what that reasoning and rationalities are, is the central question, which still needs critical research. Maybe the reason why it is hard to agree about the core of neoliberal reasoning and power mechanisms, and why it is also so hard to resist, is because it can transform itself and mask itself. As Foucault (1990, 86) puts it: “power is tolerable only on condition that it mask a substantial part of itself. Its success is proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms”. In this essay, I do my part to unmask neoliberal rationalities, especially in education, so that it could be easier to resist.

Foucault and biopower

By biopower Foucault (1981; 2007; 2008) means the power over life itself, which is the ultimate object of biopower. Biopower aims to govern, for example, through the disciplining and optimization of bodies, births, deaths, health, life expectancy and longevity, sexualities, desires, subjectivities, and agencies of human life. By collecting data on their populations, measuring, determining, and investigating human life from birth to death, with the help of biopower, neoliberal states and other regimes of power have been able to govern the life of their citizens towards wished outcomes. The neoliberal subject is born, monitored, evaluated, raised, taught, optimized, measured, investigated, and finally departed (and even still after that examined) in and by the institutions of liberal regimes of power.

As Foucault explains (1981, pp. 135-159) the way power was exercised in liberal modernity has transformed radically from the classical age, when the power exercised by the sovereign was based in the juridical power and right of the sovereign for deduction, which means the right to extract tax, wealth, labor, and services of its subjects. The sovereign also had the right to take the lives of its subjects or expose their lives to danger (for the defense of sovereign power). Hence, the power which the sovereign exercised was a more direct form of power and didn’t seek to govern all areas of human life. Things like family, desires, sexuality, beliefs, and subjectivity were thought to be private areas of human existence. Already Christianity and the power of its church started to shape the way of governing, for example, through confessions. Privacy started to be seen as something which can be dangerous, not only to the church or state, but to the human itself. It was anyway understood that direct punitive power is not effective and thus power needed to learn to hide and mask itself.

According to Foucault (1981, pp. 136) in modernity mechanisms of power shifted from sovereign rights of deduction or the taking of life of its subjects towards making the life of subjects grow by ordering, controlling, monitoring, and optimizing it – or destroying it. It was power which either “fosters life or disallows it to the point of death” (Foucault, 1981, pp. 138). Power exercised in the modern West was not anymore legitimated for the existence of sovereignty but for the biological existence of a population. And as Foucault addresses (1981, pp. 136-137) “wars were never as bloody as they have been since the nineteenth century”. That is because “power is situated and exercised at the level of life, the species, the race, and the large-scale phenomena of population”. In the modern West, power’s main role became to sustain, ensure, secure, control and multiply (biological) life so that life could live. On the other hand, that meant the right to kill those who were seen as biologically dangerous to others. In other words, liberal governmental strategy was securing – and when needed also killing – life to make life live (Dillon & Reid, 2009).

Foucault (1981, pp. 139) explains, that starting in the seventeenth century, power over life (biopower) evolved in two basic forms. First one, “anatomo-politics of the human body”, which saw the human body as a machine, and desired to discipline it, optimize its capacities, increase its usefulness, and integrate it efficiently. The second form of biopower, which Foucault called “a biopolitics of the population”, was centered on the species body, the mechanics of life itself, its biological processes, births and mortality, health, life expectancy, and all the conditions that cause these to vary and which can be supervised by interventions and regulatory controls. Hence, amid biopower, the precise governance of human bodies and calculated management of life, was born and rapidly spread in various disciplines: universities, schools, barracks and in the political practices and economic processes. Foucault (1981, pp. 141) sees that biopower was a tool  for capitalism, for which it was essential to use human bodies as machines of production and adjust the population for economic processes. However, for Foucault capitalism and economic processes were not primary elements of biopolitics (Foucault, 1981, pp. 142).

As Foucault (1981, pp. 140-143) argues, when power started to be exercised at the level of life, the peculiarity and survival of life emerged to be central to the art of governing as well. The investigations, measurement, and control of biological life of the human revealed that through the control over life it could be possible to escape some risks of death. Hence, the question of governing the future(s) became also a central part of biopower. Understandings of biological risks and dangers to life got only wider and more precise with the emergence of more exact knowledge of life processes, such as microbiology. Thus, foreseeing possible risks and dangers to life in the present moment and the future became increasingly essential for the governance of life. Dystopic, risky, and peculiar futures were imagined not only to bring fear to the population, but because of the liberal desire to manage and optimize those possible futures.

According to Foucault-inspired theorists, Dillon and Reid (2009) the liberal way to govern is based in the biopolitical project of governing life to secure it and thus make it live. But because life always has potentiality to become dangerous to itself or to the other life, the liberal way to rule is war against life to secure life. Biological life is difficult to secure and govern, as it always seems to escape, transform, or die, when subjugated to power. Death is power’s limit, the moment life escapes from power, and thus the most secret and private aspect of existence (Foucault, 1981, pp. 138). The future, life, and the human subject are fundamentally impossible to fully govern and their directions to grow be fully foreseen, and this is what makes liberal ways to govern lead paradoxically to the waging of war upon it, which it tries to secure and govern.

Neoliberal governance is obsessed with governing the future, with governing life, and the human subject, because only by foreseeing, managing, governing, monitoring, and estimating their directions and potentials, and their becomings, and possible dangers and risks, it can make them more secure and predictable. Life is not securable, and thus the liberal project to secure life is always incomplete and paradoxical. A fundamental law of biological life is that for some life to be made to live, some other life needs to die (Reid, 2016, 17). Liberal modernity’s biopolitical project to govern life is dangerous to the lives and subjects which don’t fit the stipulated norm and ideal type of subjectivity. That is because the possibility for danger lies always in the possible futures, in life’s multiple and unpredictable way to develop, and in the human subject, whose capacity for agency and autonomy, transformation and destruction is not fully known. That is exactly the reason why education, starting as early in childhood as possible, needs to be governed precisely, and bases on the evidence-based biological knowledge about the biological life, and hence, govern subjectivities as early and as precisely as possible – without anyway damaging its reasoning to protect that life, and thus let it be “free”.

How biopower operates?

Neoliberal power is indeed balancing constantly between the urge to precisely govern life, but also to let it to live “free”, so that it is not totally suffocated, and thus in risk to die or become dangerous. According to Foucault (1981, pp. 144) biopower the task of which is to take charge of life, and which  to justify this task, cannot exercise power directly, for example by taking lives of its subjects, as sovereign power used to do. Instead, biopower works by “distributing the living in the domain of value and utility”. It needs to measure, qualify, estimate, and hierarchize its objects and effects by distribution around the norm. Normalizing society, for Foucault (1981, pp. 144) is the historical outcome when power is centered on life. This means that law operates more as an action of the norm than the juridical system of law. Life more than law becomes the issue of political struggles, formulated through rights, for example: right to life, to one’s body, to health, to happiness and to needs (Foucault, 1981, pp. 145). Population appears as a final end and instrument of government: improve the condition of population, increase its wealth, health and longevity (Foucault, 2007, pp. 106). As Foucault explains (2007, pp. 108), governmentality is formed by institutions, procedures, analyses, calculations, and tactics that allow the exercise of power that has population as its targets, political economy as its major form of knowledge, and security (and later resilience) as its technical instrument.

As Foucault (2008, pp. 61) explains, liberalism, which developed since the middle of the 18th century, was based paradoxically strictly on naturalism: economic and governmental reasoning were sought from the natural world and its spontaneous mechanics more than from a juridical freedom of the individual recognized as such. When the existence of spontaneous mechanisms of economy were found, it led to the reasoning that the government must know these mechanisms and their complex and peculiar nature, and respect them (Foucault, 2008, pp. 61). That led to politics the goal of which was to have a precise, continuous, clear, and distinct knowledge of what is taking place in society, in the market, and in the economy, so that the limitations of power are not given by the respect of individual freedom but from the evidence of analysis, which needs to be respected (Foucault, 2008, pp. 62). Hence, evidence-based knowledge and science has become an essential part of (neo)liberal governance. Also, the evidence-based knowledge has a central role in future education governance, even when it is known there is a surplus of evidence and that policies use research evidence selectively (Steiner-Khamsi, forthcoming).

Foucault (2008, pp. 223) argues that economics is not the analysis of processes but the analysis of human activity: behavior, the internal rationality and hence, it is the strategic programming of the individual’s activity. The part which the economy plays in neoliberal governing is essential, but not primary, as economics work as a mechanics to govern human subjectivity. For Foucault (2008, pp. 269-270), economics is the science of the systematic nature of responses to environmental variables, and hence, different behavioral techniques, like psychology, can be integrated within economics. That also explains why behavioral techniques, therapeutic tools and language, and life sciences are growing rapidly in education and future education governance. Economics is an atheistic discipline, without totality, God, sovereign: there is no sovereign in economics (Foucault, 2008, pp. 282-283). That is why traditional authorities collapse in the neoliberal era which bases its techniques to govern in economics. Economy is not based in authority but in evidence and calculations. In other words, such as is often misunderstood, the growth of economy is not the final goal of neoliberalism, but instead the tool, mechanism, and knowledge to govern human subjectivity. The governing of the human subject and its agency is the final goal of neoliberalism  and hence understanding its rationality and ways to govern are essential in theory and practice of education.

What kind of subjectivity is the desirable for neoliberalism?

If neoliberal governance is seen as essentially the governing of human subjectivities and agencies, as I argue, what kind of subjectivity and agency is desirable and ideal for neoliberalism? Biopower seeks its model from nature, from biological life of nonhuman living species and systems, and thus from the life sciences (Foucault, 1981, 2008; Reid, 2016). The qualities of biological life and living nonhuman systems, such as resilience, adaptivity and vulnerability, have become the main ideals for human subjectivity in neoliberal modernity (Reid, 2016, pp. 19). Living systems evolve and develop from their ability to expose themselves to danger, and hence desirable skills of the neoliberal subject is not that of security from dangers, but instead exposures to dangers: to see itself as vulnerable to risks and crisis, and develop its resilience; to bounce back from catastrophic and traumatic events and be willing to struggle for adaptation to dangers (Reid, 2016).

That also means that the institutions of power, such as the state or school, don’t anymore need to offer security to their subjects, as ideal subjects should be able to self-manage, and to develop their own resilience and adaptivity to dangers. While earlier security was the goal of the liberal state, now danger is desirable for the neoliberal subject to evolve. At least, in the sense that it imagines itself being in danger and that there is no other way to escape danger than resilience and adaptation. As Foucault (2008, pp. 270-271) states, homo economicus is the subjectivity which correlates with the governmentality which systematically modifies the environment. In other words, the ideal neoliberal subject adapts to its environment continually. Hence, the most desirable skills of homo economicus, the neoliberal subject, is to be resilient, flexible, adaptative and governable: not that of the autonomous, free, and independent subject, which resists actively intolerable conditions and transforms its environment, which would be political subjectivity. Thus, the neoliberal subject is always incomplete, needing to work on itself and see itself as a project, constantly self-becoming (Reid, 2016, 18).

Isn’t this totally opposite to the idea of a free, autonomous, and individual subject which we have been taught that liberalism desires? Foucault (2008) says that freedom still is in the heart of the practice and problematization of liberalism: its art of government emerges as a management of freedom. Not so that individuals would be free to be free, but that liberalism produces conditions which the individual needs to be free. Thus, in production of freedom it always also has risks limiting and destroying that freedom (Foucault, 2008, pp. 64). It is because individual interests, being different and opposite to each other, are dangerous to the interest of all: liberal security is based in the protection of collective interests against individual interests, as well as in the protection of individual interests from collective interests (Foucault, 2008, pp. 65).

Individual attributes of subjects, such as sickness, aging, desires, and ideologies must not be dangerous either to individuals or collectives. So liberal governance is based on the interplay of freedom and security; to the mechanisms and technologies which govern precisely the dangers and freedoms of both individuals and collectives (Foucault, 2008, pp. 65). This leads to the liberal subject being constantly exposed to danger, or at least, it needs to see their life, their present and their future as dangerous. According to Foucault (2008, pp. 66-67) “this stimulus of danger will be one of the major implications of liberalism”, both the psychologically and culturally stimulated fear of dangers. He continues “there is no liberalism without a culture of danger”: the danger which takes place in everyday conditions, and which can appear for example as crimes, diseases, crisis in economy, in families and human species.

Reid (2016) calls the subjectivity desired by neoliberalism “biohuman subjectivity”, the subjectivity which appears only as a biological and material phenomenon, and is undressed of all its capacities for transcendence, imagination, consciousness, and spirituality, which once were seen as fundamental capacities of the human. To act politically is fundamentally tied to capacities to imagine new ways of being and resist intolerable conditions. Which is why Reid (2016) argues that the enemy for neoliberalism is political subjectivity, and more specifically, the subjectivity which exercises powers of imaginative actions for alternative realities, and political agency, which instead of just adapting to the current environment, transforms the world. This is something which Foucault might have meant when he talked about “political spirituality”. Homo economicus; the neoliberal subject, the biohuman subject, accepts its reality, and responds systematically to systematic modifications artificially introduced into the environment, and is particularly governable and a precisely manageable subject (Foucault, 2008, pp. 270). The neoliberal subject needs to imagine itself as vulnerable and flawed, so that it couldn’t imagine itself as powerful and capable of changing its environment to be more secure or livable. Instead, it curls up inside itself, to seek its flaws and vulnerabilities, to transform itself, again and again, continuously, so as to be more resilient and adaptive to its surroundings.

Education governance

There are many ongoing shifts in education today. As mentioned earlier, Mertanen et. al. (2021) call these ongoing changes in education governance precision education governance (PEG), the key areas of which are i) global governance of education, ii) marketization, privatization and digitalization of education, and iii) behavioural and life sciences as the basis for governing future education. According to Mertanen et. al. (2021) global governance of education means that education is more precisely governed not only by states, but by intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) such as the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), United Nations (UN), World Bank, International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the European Union (EU). These organizations don’t use direct power, but define rules, norms, and standards, provide information, knowledge, and ideas, and legitimacy for actions. That is so called ‘soft governing’ or ‘soft policy-making’, that skips over the parliamentary decision-making traditionally attached to politics (Mertanen et. al., 2021). The same shift in governance is seen widely in neoliberal societies, and in the growth of power used by international corporations, tech companies and organizations, like Apple and Facebook.

I see that the shift towards the global governance of education, which is exercise not directly, but with ‘soft governing’, shows how neoliberal rationality and power is used widely in all stages of regimes of power. IGOs governs the decisions of nation-states in the same way nation-states govern their institutions, like schools, and schools governs students, and again students govern themselves. Neoliberal rationality is not something which just big international corporations or nation-states use for their own behalf. It is a rationality inside and outside of us, it is in each of us, who live under this culture and rationality of neoliberalism. Power is not the one-way force from outside-in or from up-to-down. Instead, power is everywhere because it comes from everywhere (Foucault, 1981, pp. 93). Power comes from below and there is no binary between rulers and ruled.

Digitalization of education moves education outside the classroom and schools to digital platforms. At the same time it creates a stage for the marketization and privatization of education. These shifts to digitalized education are presented as autonomous, fair, equal, and rational, and made to serve individual needs. Mertanen et. al. (2021) argue that as with all human conduct there is a strong ideological and political imperative in technology, digitalization and use of AI in education: it de-personalizes students and teachers and disconnects them from human agency. At the same time information is collected from students constantly by tech companies for their own use, such as marketing. I see the rise of technology, AI, and digital platforms in education, the same way that I see the growing interest in education practice and theory in biological science, and new material and posthuman research.  It is a part of the neoliberal governing of biological life by biopower: wouldn’t it be easier to govern life and subjectivities, if we understood better what is the difference between living and not living, between human and nonhuman, machine and living entity, material and transcendent? Wouldn’t it be better to govern the human as an object if there was no difference between object and human – and we knew precisely how object, material and machine works? The third key theme in PEG, behavioral, and life sciences as the basis for governing future education, is closely connected to this topic, and I want to look at that more closely in the next section.

Forming biohuman subjectivity in education

In education, globally and in Finland, we have seen the rise of therapeutic power, therapeutic interventions, language and focus on students’ emotional well-being, psychological support, and self-esteem (Brunila, 2012; Brunila & Rossi, 2017). It is argued that the therapeutic ethos in education individualizes societal problems and considers and even desires a subject which sees itself as vulnerable and fragile instead of capable (Brunila, 2012). By using therapeutic interventions and language the subject turns to look inside instead of outside and reflect and fix constantly its own self in order to be a “good” subject. Hence, power regimes, such as state or school, don’t need to secure their subjects from unequal or unjust practices, or fix political or social problems, because the problems are individualized.

This means, for example, that the focus in schools and early childhood education is more on children’s individual “problems” such as learning disabilities or behavioral problems. Schools or kindergartens don’t need to change their practices as the focus is on changing and transforming children to fit in with their practices. Simultaneously, in the larger picture, societal problems like youth unemployment can be seen as problems for individuals: youth’s inability to fit into work markets and possess skills needed such as maturity, responsibility, or activity (see Mertanen et. al., 2020). At the same time, children and youth who don’t fit in with the ideal image of subjectivity, are seen as a risk not only for society, but also to themselves, for example at risk of social exclusion, and hence, interventions and guidance for their own behalf are needed (Mertanen, et. al, 2020). As mentioned earlier, a liberal rationality with a goal to secure the life to make it live, has shifted to neoliberal rationality with a goal to govern human subjects to make them resilient to their environments, and so, not in need of being provided security by the state, but instead evolving and transforming ideal and ‘natural’ ways of exposing themselves constantly to dangers (Foucault, 2008; Chandler & Reid, 2016). Dangers, like unemployment, bullying, or the eco-crisis are not phenomena we are anymore expected to change, but to accept as our reality, adapt to  and transform ourselves in correspondence with.

There is also a major shift in education and educational research from education to learning (Säntti et. al., 2021; Youdell & Lindley, 2019). Students have become “learners”, who learn in “learning environments” and teachers have become “co-learners” or “facilitators” (Säntti et. al., 2021, pp. 4).  The focus in educational research is more and more on learning and the biological factors which are seen to effect to it, such as neuroscience, cognitive processes, genetics, molecular biology, and biochemistry. As Youdell and Lindley (2019, pp. 1-2) state, contemporary education policy has a growing interest in the new biological sciences, especially neuroscience and genetics. At the same time, there is a lack of policy interests in socially engaged research, for example educational research concerned with power relations, policies, and inequalities. There is a risk that learning difficulties and inequalities in education will be explained with posited biological differences in populations, and the goal of education becomes optimizing human bodies and those differences between them by using biological or behavioral tools, like therapeutic interventions, and evidence-based knowledge from the biological sciences to legitimize the use of these tools (Youndell & Lindley, 2019).

Neoliberal rationality is based on the idea that only “hard” science and “hard” evidence give  authorization to policies (Foucault, 2008). Thus, also education needs to base itself foremostly on the life sciences, which are seen as “hard”, more based in evidence than social science (Steiner-Khamsi, forthcoming). Youndell and Lindley (2019) argue that much of the findings of biological sciences recognize the complex interplay between social, biological, and environmental processes, and thus, educational sciences and biological sciences should collaborate in order to grasp the best use of knowledge from biological sciences in education. They continue by arguing that policy makers use and often abuse the evidence from biological science, and hence, policies based on “evidence” are not the same as life sciences themselves, and hence transdisciplinary research of ‘bioscience’ would be important.

Current dramatic shifts in education theory and practice correspond with Reid’s (2016, pp. 18-19) ideas about the neoliberal project of ‘biohuman subjectivity’, reduced only to its biological dimension and undressed of transcendent capacities for imagination, dream and political agency. Human biology is interested in processes of the human body and ways to optimize these processes (Youdell & Lindley, 2019) and governing the human body and its subjectivity is the target of biopower. As Foucault (1981, pp. 144) argues, the mechanism by which neoliberal rationality uses biopower on the subject, is normalization, which is based in a hierarchical order of subjects distributed by value and utility. Normalization is the way to govern human subjectivity and modify ideal subjects. When power is exercised at the level of biological life and human bodies in order to govern them, it is essential to have the precise knowledge of biological processes of these bodies and life, such as neurosciences and eugenics. Governing presumes the precise and evidence-based knowledge of the biological processes of human bodies, and hence, also education needs to assume this same knowledge so that it is effective (for governing subjectivities). Normalization and optimization is based on hierarchical distribution by value and utility of subjects, to better ones and lesser ones, desired and less desired, and thus always either to leave some people out, or give the right for power to intervene in their lives for their own good. Normalization and optimization of humans is also based in the idea that biological life including biological life of humans is always malleable, resilient, and capable to transform and evolve and for life-long learning (see Youdell & Lindley, 2019).

Noticing human capability to learn and transform is of course good in many cases in education, such as when understanding children as always having possibilities and not being determined, for example, by intelligence, backgrounds, or disabilities. Simultaneously, the constant need to transform and optimize human subjects to be resilient, adaptive, vulnerable, and malleable, raises many ethical questions. Subjectification, normalization, and optimization of the subjects based on a neoliberal distribution by way of value and utility neglects the questions of differences, inequalities, hierarchies, and ethics (Foucault, 1981; Brunila & Rossi, 2017). For example, what happens to those who resist resilience or adaptation in the given environment or given images of the future? What happens to the children and young people who are seen as a risk for society and to themselves, and who don’t fit the ideal image of resilient and governable subjectivity? What happens to those who choose resistance before resilience, those who deny transforming themselves and instead want to transform the injustices around them? Those are the ones who possess political subjectivity.


Neoliberal rationality is definined by its focus on possible dangers and its corresponding urge to govern and shape human subjectivity and agency, life and the future (Foucault, 2008). As I have tried to show in this essay, life is always dangerous: to live means not only to have to constantly risk death, because death is inevitable. For one life to live, another has to die. Neoliberalism is not simply “expoitative international corporations” trying to diminish our life for the purpose of economic growth for their profit. It lives in us all, inside out, outside in, in our thinking, rationality, and knowledge. It has its own reasoning, which is also designed to serve our life: for example, securing us, bringing wealth, longevity, and happiness. We use this same rationality every day in our lives. If we don’t understand the rationality behind neoliberalism and the mechanics of how it governs, it’s hard to understand which way it changes our subjectivities and agencies, and which problems and dangers it exposes us.

My aim in this essay was to show the rationality behind neoliberalism and its way to exercise power. I have argued that neoliberal governance is essentially the governance of subjectivities and agencies of the human, and it exercises its power by using biopower and economics as its mechanisms.  I have shown its ideal subjectivity to be resilient, adaptive, and governable, and how education plays its essential part in producing this subjectivity. In education this is done through normalization, therapeutic tools, and individualization. Education governance is shifting to take its models for ideal subjectivity even more precisely from biological life, by focusing its knowledge in evidence-based information from life sciences like neuroscience and genetics. This transforms education more and more mechanically, as the focus from education shifts to learning, and pedagogy to biological processes of the human. So the idea of human and child in education changes radically: from subject to object, from human to nonhuman, from thinking, active and willing entity to biological processes, from transcendent capacities like consciousness and imagination to materiality and mechanism.

Neoliberalism desires to govern the human on behalf of the security of collective and individual life. The human itself, with its powers to imagine and act politically, is seen as the most dangerous entity. We have learnt to believe so more and more from the discourses of Eco-crisis and the Anthropocene, this current era we are living in when the human became the biggest driver of geological changes and destruction of the Earth. Human life is dangerous to all life in and on the Earth, and that is why it needs to be governed, and stripped of hubris, imagination, and self-belief.

The neoliberal subject is a tamed human subject, it is biohuman, or rather nonhuman, stripped of  powers which the human once possessed. It does not bring danger to its surroundings, to itself, to life or to neoliberal power regimes, because neoliberal subjectivity is not political subjectivity, not even close to spiritual subjectivity, and does not possess any kind of political agency. It is biologically and psychologically tied to its current catastrophic environment, entangled with all other vulnerable beings, in an endless loop of transformation of its own psychological, emotional, and biological self to be evermore  adaptive – without capacity to escape its body or environment. This is the image of the human subject we have now; this is what our current policies, and “critical” research, including the practice and theory of education is giving to us. This is the future of humanity depicted for us. And like Säntti et. al. (2021) state, often these representations of the future are self-predictive. Is this what we want from our future?



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