Passage to biopolitical governance


There are certain theoretical difficulties with trying to form a theory of biopower or biopolitics according to Foucault’s work. This is first due to his continuous claims of not working with any overall theory of power, and second, due to his studies during the seventies which may be roughly divided into two sections: the analysis of disciplinary power would then occupy the first half of the decade until the lectures Society Must Be Defended held in 1976 and the publication of History of Sexuality vol. 1 later in that same year in which Foucault moves towards an analysis of power that has the living multitude or population as its target i.e. biopolitics. When analysing biopolitics Foucault does not utilize words biopower or biopolitics very often but refers instead to e.g. governmentality, techniques of power or disciplinary practices. In spite of this one is able to define the field or phenomena of biopolitics but it needs rigorous work in putting pieces together from the fragments that cross from history to present, from liberalism to totalitarianism. At this point of my thesis this is my aim: to be honest with Foucault’s ideas and to give a coherent analysis of his views on biopolitics. As Fontana and Bertani point out in their commentary on Society Must Be Defended -lectures the disciplinary power targeted on modifying individuals and biopower aimed at population are sometimes seen as different theories of power in Foucault’s thought (2003, 279). They do not agree with this nor do I. Thus I will be arguing exactly the opposite: that these two form different poles of the same power/knowledge apparatus that is at work in modern capitalist societies. Here I will begin with an analysis of Foucault’s genealogical work of those shifts in history that pave the way towards biopolitical forms of power.

In his Collegé de France lecture series Security, Territory, Population held in 1978 Foucault tries to give a rough account of those developments in ideas as well as in practices that led towards a specific type of governance that he labelled as biopolitical. I will first briefly summarize Foucault’s view on the historical changes that took place roughly from the 16th century to the late 18th century. His argument can be divided into three distinctive sections located in particular historical situations     with their own peculiar thought: the Middle Ages, approximately seventeenth century and, lastly, eighteenth century. Ideas crucial in this genealogy of the modern state or governance are, above all, those of the sovereign,the state and the art of governing and how these are to be managed in order to create a functional whole from the people, natural resources and the circulation of things and goods within the territory that is governed.


Let us begin with a definition of what Foucault means with the word “governmentality”: first, it is “the ensemble formed by institutions, procedures, analyses and reflections, calculations, and tactics that allow the exercise of this very specific, albeit very complex, power that has the population as its target, political economy as its major form of knowledge, an apparatuses of security as its essential technical instrument.” (ibid., 108), second, it is the tendency in the West to constitute a type of power that is called “ the government” above all other kinds of powers and which has led to the development of governmental apparatuses and knowledges linked to them, and finally, governmentality is the result of the process during which the state of Middle Ages that was characterized in terms of justice became “the administrative state in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and was gradually ‘governmentalized’” (ibid.). This governmentality is occupied with constructing an art of government which in different conditions takes different forms. I shall proceed with explicating the shift from medieval ideas of power towards the state oriented thinking of raison d’État.

What is remarkable according to Foucault (ibid., 234-237) is that during the 16th century there is a identifiable break between the medieval characterization of sovereignty or king and a new emerging political order. Where the good governance of the former was characterized by its resemblance with God and nature, supporting vitalism of the societal organism and Christian pastorality i.e. guidance towards the eternal bliss, the latter was occupied with the new problematization of “res publica, the public domain or state (la chose publique).” (ibid., 236), that is, the sovereign is expected to do more than just exercise his sovereignty but this type of governance is no more reducible to analogies such as God or a shepherd. Hence, what was lacked was a definition of the art of government. In the middle of this political debate is of course Machiavelli and his Prince, although, according to Foucault, what he precisely lacks is any reference to art of government – his problem was simply how the prince could preserve his principality over what he was governing, territory or people, not that of preserving the state itself which is the raison d’être of raison d’État (ibid., 243).

Foucault dates the crucial discussions relating to raison d’État emerging between years 1580-1660 (ibid., 236) and names these revolutionaries theorizing against the old system and for the new raison d’État  politiques (ibid., 242). What the politiques stand for is the state and the state only; they try to construct a state rationality that does not refer to anything outside itself, not God nor nature, it is rationality for itself. In what this raison d’État consists then? First of all, it is the essence of the state, it is the knowledge of the state and knowledge in order to preserve it. In this sense it is extremely conservative: once the state has been established that will be the status quo that raison d’État fights for. On the other hand, raison d’État does not pose questions of origin and legitimacy, it operates only in the world of government and the state that it present as given. Usually it functions within general laws but when necessary it will abandon them for sake of the state i.e. anything that is needed in order to preserve the state will be done (ibid., 255-260).This is due to the notion of necessity: whereas the old  government was concerned with laws raison d’État only uses them as instruments for the sake of the state and thus, the necessity of preserving state goes beyond any positive law (ibid., 262-263).

Foucault then goes on arguing that one of the new aspects within theorizing about this type of governmentality named raison d’État was the question of population and the new problematic relating to it (ibid., 267). An example of this can be seen through a comparison of Machiavelli and Francis Bacon: the former is only concerned of the rivals of the prince, that is, the other nobles, but for the latter it is the common people who form the great danger for those in power. Foucault claims that for Bacon the nobles can be either bought or executed but the real threat is poverty and discontent of the people which may lead to sedition. This problematic of the common people is linked to wider change in thought, namely, to the rise of mercantilism. In order to preserve and build a strong state one must govern people, first, according to the production and circulation of goods and things, in other words, according to economic calculations and, second, one must take the opinion of those who are governed into account. Thus, “the two major elements of reality that government will have to handle are economy and opinion.” (ibid., 272).

According to Foucault the mercantilist way of thinking from which raison d’État also sprang is crucial vis-à-vis biopolitics since there was founded, at least implicitly, the problematic of population and those apparatuses through which population became to be governed as a living mass that is capable of producing whatever is needed within a framework that utilizes state the most. This implies that it is from the population one may draw manpower for agriculture and manufactures, become independent from imports and thus invest on gold and silver. On the other hand, growing population will also guarantee the economic competition within the state and, consequently, contribute to low wages and prices. But this system needs to be managed through political procedures, such as regulations, laws and disciplinary mechanisms. Above all, idleness, vagrancy and emigration must be prevented and goods for exports must be produced. Finally, birth rate must be promoted with creation of favourable conditions for reproduction through different manipulation of prices, taxes, nutrition etc..

What now becomes the most essential knowledge for the sovereign is no more expressible through terms of jurisprudence and law, but instead in terms of statistics – which is etymologically, according to Foucault, “knowledge of the state, of the forces and resources that characterize a state at a given moment.” (ibid., 274). This technical knowledge includes all the possible data of the resources in the state, as well natural as human, and the crucial question is of course how to put these two into work in the most profitable way. In this process raison d’État must act on people’s consciousness due to being able to affect on their way of acting, that is, constituting people as certain kind of political and economical subjects. According to Foucault what was needed then, in order to put population to work within the framework of raison d’État, was the constitution of the apparatus of police – and it must be emphasized that his argument is precisely that it was whereby the institution of  police that population became that reflexive prism which, through several changes from the 17th century to the middle of 18th century, was constituted as the centre of political and scientific knowledge (ibid., 274-278).

What is characteristicly modern in this new way of constructing the art of government is that it does not rely on any essential idea of good government which would guide the ways in which society must be constructed. Instead, what is now at stake is the management of forces of production and circulation that manifest in the competition between the states. Foucault claims that during the sixteenth century police is understood as a set of actions that are directed towards communities under public authority and on the other hand police also signifies the results of good government. This changes in the seventeenth century when police becomes a technical instrument for securing the management of forces in such a manner that the best possible growth is gained at the same time as the inner coherence and security within the state is maintained. Furthermore, police is a tool with which the balance of the growth and power of different states is secured. This type of art of government that manifests in administrative institutions, such as police as the most important, and bases its international relations upon a competition of the states is established with the Peace of Westphalia 1648 and is still visible in the Vienna treaty 1815. Thus, police has a double role in securing the best possible development of the state but also securing the international order. (Ibid., 311-315.)

Although, as I will explain in detail below, Foucault explicitly defines this police of seventeenth century as mercantilist and ideologically still operating within the framework of raison d’État and therefore not yet operating in the field of biopolitics and population in its totality (ibid., 315-317), he still claims in his History of Sexuality vol. 1 that “This bio-power was without question an indispensable element in the development of capitalism; the latter would not have been possible without the controlled insertion of bodies into the machinery of production and the adjustment of the phenomena of the population to economic processes. “ (1978, 140-141). Now, it seems to me that the police as it appears in the seventeenth century lays down the foundations for biopolitical procedures that will emerge during the next century.

The police will of course develop in different terms in different countries. Nevertheless, what police seem to share in Western-Europe at the time is its preoccupation with the occupation of people: when the old pre-modern regime of power was more concerned of the status, wealth, loyalty and virtue of the people this modern administrative power directs its gaze on the concrete doings of people. At first this police is above all an urban institution which utilizes statistics in order to constitute cities as effective and secure centres for commerce. This is done through five essential objects of concern: first, police must reflect the number of citizens vis-à-vis the resources and territory and the possibilities springing from this relation, second, people must be able to feed themselves so one need to think of agricultural policy, third, after the simple feeding comes the issues of health: police must ensure that the risk of contamination and disease is reduced to minimum and thus plan everything from butcheries and cemeteries to cases of epidemics of plague and smallpox for instance. Then fourth, after managing to secure a healthy mass of people police need to ensure that every able-bodied citizen works – and more precisely, that every profession that is needed by the state will be occupied. This is to be done through preventing idleness and regulating professions. Lastly, police must take care of circulation in the large sense: it must ensure that the infrastructure allows men and goods to flow, it must structure the regulations and laws which allow products to move but prevent skilled labour force of emigrating and suppress vagrancy. To summarize then, police governs flows of men and circulation of products and the universe relating to it, so simply society. (Foucault 2007, 323-327.)

Further in this thesis I will make a distinction between biopower and biopolitics and due to this I need to make a difference between the micro level of power which Foucault analyses in his book Discipline and Punish and the macro level power which is targeted on populations and which comes visible in governmentality. Here it suffice to say that I will argue that those procedures described in the paragraph above fall into the definition of biopower even in the Foucaultian sense – but only when identified within the framework of disciplinary techniques targeted to manipulate human life. Foucault does not call them biopolitical procedures in his lecture since (this is my interpretation) in his view one crucial aspect is missing, that is, reflective manipulation of human life that becomes possible only with the rise of human and natural sciences during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries..

When police was constituted in the seventeenth century as an administrative tool for the king or the sovereign it was “the direct governmentality of the sovereign qua sovereign.” (ibid., 339), a pure expression of raison d’État within a mercantilist thought, and due to this it appeared as “an institution of the market” (ibid., 335) and essentially urban. Nevertheless, these ideas linked to police changed drastically during the eighteenth century with the new ideas of the physiocrats and the économistes. This change is essentially linked with the rise of capitalism and growth of scientific technology. Anyway, the physiocrats and the économistes emphasized agriculture and rural areas in lieu of the city and production in stead of circulation. Further, old police regulation was seen useless since it was due to the natural laws of the market that would fix right prices for each product. What comes to population the ideology is no more to maximize it but to adjust it to fit into conditions at hand so that the demand and supply of labour force and thus salaries will have a balance. Lastly, free trade between the states was to be allowed and the individuals were to be allowed to compete with themselves in order to guarantee the best possible profit for every one – including the state. (Ibid., 342-348.)

In brief, during the eighteenth century along with the économistes there was first a new problematization of the relation of raison d’État and knowledge: a new scientific knowledge of society was needed in order to govern well but this knowledge was essentially external to raison d’État i.e. not knowledge of the government itself but, for example, calculations of relations between population and wealth on three axis, namely consumption, production and circulation, that  is, in other words, birth of political economy (ibid., 350-351). From the point of view of biopolitics, something of huge importance happens here: population becomes seen and studied in its naturalness. In other words, population is something that includes natural constants that can be known through scientific methods – and when known they are possible targets for manipulation. What this mean for governmentality is that it must deal or even work with the naturalness of population and it is precisely during this era that the police as described above breaks down: the positive creative-regulative role of police will be spread to different institutions and police will gain its negative present day meaning as an apparatus preventing and fighting against certain disorders.

According to Foucault “from the eighteenth century, these three movements –government, population, political economy–form a solid series that has certainly not been dismantled even today” (ibid., 108), and it is in Discipline and Punish and History of Sexuality vol. 1 that this problematic becomes clearly visible. Thus, I will next turn to actual analysis of biopower and biopolitics in these works.


Fontana, Alessandro and Bertani, Mauro (2003): “Situating the Lectures” in Society Must Be Defended. Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-76. Trans. David Macey. Ed. Arnold I. Davidson. Picador, New York.

Foucault, Michel (1978): History of Sexuality vol.1. An Introduction. Trans. Hurley, Robert.Pantheon books, New York. (Originally published as La volonté de Savoir in 1976.)

–– (2007) Security, Territory, Population. Lectures at the Collège de France 1977-1978. Trans. Burchell, Graham. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

2 thoughts on “Passage to biopolitical governance

  1. It seems to me you are taking Foucault uncritically. There were too many cases when philosophers and sociologists were defeated by historians (Weber by Davies, Marx by Gurevitch). Concept of society was named as “phantom” concept by Hayek.
    Do you take into account any critical views at all?

    • yes, the aim of this paper was just to clarify Foucault’s points for myself and others in the seminar, thus the summary-like structure of the paper.

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