Notes on Foucault’s Birth of Biopolitics, Part I

  1. Ia. Three historical periods of government rationality
  2. Ib. Comparing the early modern and modern governmental regimes
  3. Ic. Analytical concepts introduced
  4. IIa. The market as a site of truth
  5. IIb. Two juridical-legal strategies
  6. IIc. Interest as operator
  7. IIIa. Effect of changes in modern economic logic to inter-European and extra-European international relations: Liberalism and Realism
  8. IIIb. Naturalism and modern governmentality
  9. IIIc. Modern state as the guardian and producer of liberty; liberalism as self-contradictory, revealed in crisis moments
  10. Iva. On distinguishing modern “French” and “English” states


(Page numbers from Michel Foucault, La naissance de la biopolitique. Paris: Gallimard, 2004.)

I. Lecture 1: 10 January 1979

Ia. Three historical periods of government rationality

Though Foucault intends to talk about “biopolitics,” a new regime of “government rationality” he sees developing during his time, he begins his lecture series with a series of discussions about the history of liberalism. In this first lecture, Foucault distinguishes between three historical periods. The first period is the Middle Ages; the second period is the early modern period, beginning in the 16th century; and the third period is the modern period, beginning in the mid-18th century.

In the Middle Ages, the government rationality of states aimed to use military force and legal jurisdiction to create universal empires. By uniting the world under a single empire, these states could guarantee their citizens redemption in the afterlife (8). The state only exists to fulfill the will of God.

In contrast, the early modern period sees the development of the “reason of the state.” From the 16th century onward, states no longer aimed to guarantee their citizens satisfaction in the afterlife, but rather to guarantee the existence of the state. Furthermore, to guarantee a state’s existence, this state needed to compete with other states who thought the same way. Political leaders saw competition between states as desirable and even beneficial. To compete with one another, states began developing “police states” that would inspect how their citizens behaved. Ultimately, “the limitation of the international objective of government” corresponded with “the illumination in the exercise of the State of police” (9). In response to the rise of the police state, citizens use law as a defense against over-encroachment. Where law once represented state power, law now defended against it (10). It was no coincidence that the idea of “natural law” existing before state power developed also at the same time, as natural law also threatens the natural legitimacy of the state. Foucault also calls this early modern logic the “wisdom (sagesse) of the prince” (19).

In the early modern period, the prince knows what would be best for her citizens, and therefore believes that she has the right to wield unlimited power. In contrast, in the modern period, the prince realizes that she cannot control for all possible externalities, and therefore needs to manage the population as well as possible according to natural laws. Foucault notably distinguishes between premodern “mercantilism” and modern “political economy.” Premodern mercantilism is straightforward: the state desires to hoard population, wealth, and military might. In contrast, modern political economy desires to rule in a way that population, wealth, and military might naturally develop, such as through free markets and national education.

Ib. Comparing the early modern and modern governmental regimes

Foucault also distinguishes the early modern and the modern periods as holding “extrinsic” and “intrinsic” logics of limited government respectively (12). Intrinsic logics involved an “internal regulation of government rationality” (12) or an “internal critique of government rationality” (14). As Foucault writes,

[Cette nouvelle raison gouvernementale] ne va plus tourner autour de la question du droit, qu’elle ne va plus tourner autour de la question de l’usurpation et de la légitimité du souverain. Elle ne va plus avoir cette espèce d’allure pénale qu’avait encore le droit public au XVIe et au XVIIe siècle quand il disait: si le souverain franchit cette loi, alors il doit être puni par une sanction d’illégitimité. Toute cette question de la raison gouvernementale critique va tourner autour du comment ne pas trop gouverner. (14–15)

In early modern states, the problem of statehood was the problem of law, for laws limited the powers of princes. In contrast, in modern states, the central problem of statehood became the problem of the minimum amount of governance that would allow for the state to succeed in competition with other states. People no longer believe that an expert prince will naturally be able to succeed in competition, but rather that the prince should set up a framework that allows the people of the nation to develop the nation economically in a way that will be competitively successful. No surprise, then, that the eighteenth century also witnessed the first murmurs of nationalism, in public discourse came to see citizens, not rulers, as the backbone of the state.

Lastly, Foucault is particularly interested in “political economy,” an “intellectual instrument” developed in the modern era that is

une sorte de réflexion générale sur l’organisation, la distribution et la limitation des pouvoirs dans une société. (15)

Political economy imagines the state as something can be “autoregulated” (15), that is, that the state hums along like a car motor without the permanent interference of some well-meaning prince. If the early modern period meant the development of neutral law, the modern period developed economics as a neutral domain that became reified as something that did not need human interference on a regular basis, but which needed human interference to set up the structure for its functioning.

Ic. Analytical concepts introduced

To study these three periods, Foucault introduces a series of concepts.

Both early modern and modern states are characterized by “principles of autolimitation.” Foucault seems to mean multiple things with this term. First, he refers to “the principle of necessary and sufficient concurrence between different states” (8). Autolimitation formed part of the package of modern states after the Treaty of Westphalia, during which the goal of states was not to conquer all states surrounding them, but rather to balance power in the interests of mutual profit from equal power relations. At other times, Foucault seems to refer to how the principal debate within governments from early modernity onwards is the degree to which state power should be limited. In other words, whether through a parliament or through separation of powers, most people agree that some mechanism within the state should serve to check the state’s own power. In the premodern period, most saw greater state power as an unqualified plus, whereas starting from the early modern period, most saw state power as useful but dangerous.

All societies are characterized by “principles” or “regimes of truth” that substantiate certain “series of practices.” Giving the examples of his previous research on madness, delinquency, and sexuality, Foucault defines this relationship as “by what interferences this series of practices could make that which didn’t exist… become nevertheless something else, something that however continues to not exist” (21). How I understand this is that certain practices of statehood such as the governance of bodies turns something non-existing, such as sexuality, into something whose existence is a question of true or false.

II. Lecture 2: 17 January 1979

In this lecture, Foucault discusses the nature of “liberalism,” a new form of governance starting in the mid-18th century. He identifies two elements of liberal governance: firstly, the market as a site of “veridiction,” or quasi-objective judgment; and secondly, the development of two juridical-legal strategies to limit state power.

Foucault distinguishes “liberalism” from the “reason of the State” in which liberalism is a new “governmental reason” in which the key problem is no longer how to defend citizens against the state with law and justice, but rather how to govern the minimum necessary to preserve individual freedom. This “frugal” state found in political economy its primary logic and historical truth; the naturalization of economics manifests itself in the market as the site of truth.

IIa. The market as a site of truth

By describing the market as a site of truth, Foucault seems to mean several things. Firstly, economics becomes naturalized. Economic prosperity does not require the heavy-handed mercantilism of the government, but rather a government that allows their citizens to pursue their individual interests. The “invisible hand” becomes a force of nature for economic scientists to objectively study, rather than a problem of change through moral uplifting.

Secondly, the market-place as a physical site becomes the referent for the validity of a regime. Citizens come to expect the government to protect them from the inequities of the market through social safety nets. They may also blame a government for ruling poorly if the economy suffers, and vote in another party. This is what Foucault means when he writes that historical discourses permitted certain “type[s] of formulation deriving from certain rules of verification and falsification” (37). When I blame an economic downturn on government leadership, I make a truth statement in the second half of the phrase (either the government did well, or it did not). However, the implicit rule of verification requires that I make reference to the market: unlike in medieval states, I do not normally blame the government for a lack of religious piety. Certain sites, such as the market, clinic, and prison, became topics of discourse because speaking about these topics permitted the declaration of historical truth statements to be generally considerable as true and false, rather than being non sequitur or unlikely.

IIb. Two juridical-legal strategies

Foucault’s discussion juridical-legal strategies is also highly interesting. Foucault distinguishes between English utilitarianism and French juridical radicalism. The two overlap and enter in “dialectic,” but Foucault argues that they are two heterogeneous responses to the same question of how we can govern the minimum possible. This is a positive question of deciding uses of government power, as opposed to the earlier negative question of how we can prevent the government manager from total power over individual life.

This distinction is nuanced. If in early modern states, the law defended against absolute state power, in modern England, the people kept state power at distance by constantly questioning its utility. If a government power did not have a clear and immediate use for its people, then it should be discarded; this, in turn, required a vibrant public sphere in which citizens debated on the utility of policy. Indeed, what may appear as useful for one social group may not for another. From here develops the English notion of individual freedom as originating not from defense of the state (as in the early modern) or in abstract human rights (as in the French modern), but rather as the individual’s unique desires for how the state will work in ways that will serve her.

The modern French, in contrast, encode in law the division between individual and state rights. The state has jurisdiction over the codified, whereas individuals guard for themselves what is not; the public debate is therefore not of individual utility, but rather of what general rights should be given away to the state. Although many will disagree on the degree to which the state should intervene, unlike the English case, the French do not debate about whether the state is useful, but rather about whether the state has too much or too little legal jurisdiction over human life. This debate over what the state is rather than over for whom the state is useful renders the French debate more about political structure than individual subject. The law is not a response to individual needs, but rather a collective presentation of the polis, a decision behind which all members must stand, even if some disagree during the process of deliberation. If the agreement between the modern English and the state is between a collection of concrete individuals for collective benefit, the agreement between the modern French and the state is between a collection of abstract individuals and the state it needs to create a just society; the main topic of debate in the latter is not the individual, but the state.1

IIc. Interest as operator

Foucault notes how in modern societies, government decisions are based on profit (intérêt). For example, if we have a bunch of juvenile delinquents, the decision of whether we lock them in jail or reeducate them would pass through the question of which choice would be the most profitable for society, either in a monetary or a social sense. Foucault calls this the “thin phenomenal layer of interests” (mince pellicule phénoménale des intérêts) which are “henceforth the only thing on which governmental reason has the necessary means to intervene (avoir prise)” (47). Government desires only to improve the interests of the nation, usually in terms of economic profit, rather than the internal well-being of its people; if we re-educate these delinquents, it is not because we have a moral obligation to our citizens, but because we agree that re-educating these delinquents will serve our country best in the future in terms of public safety and economic growth. The logic of the state sees the people as a whole, whether in the French or the English case.

Unlike the early modern state, the management of the state in the modern period becomes for the people and by the people, yet also in a way that seeks to defend the people against its own encroachment. That is why if on the one hand we have more or less economic reasoning behind who we throw behind bars, we also have penal laws providing basic rights for prisoners that make it harder for a state to exercise these same economic logics. The modern state’s internal critique is therefore contradictory: on the one hand, the citizen “people” replaces the expert prince as the holder of government, yet this same people must defend against its own legalization through (in the English case) constant inquiries towards the respect of fundamental human rights, or (in the French case) constant inquiries towards the respect of the national law, or in the worst-case scenario, a change in the nature of the law itself.

III. Lecture 3: 24 January 1979

IIIa. Effect of changes in modern economic logic to inter-European and extra-European international relations: Liberalism and Realism

Foucault argues that in the early modern period, European international relations operated through a mercantilist balance of powers. Each country competed to gather as much wealth as possible, and in the event that one country became too powerful, the others would pressure it to redistribute its gains through militarily or diplomatic force. This logic will be upended in the modern period, when the “natural” state of affairs will become not a state of balanced power, but rather of a “natural” price at which Europeans can only arrive through a free market (55). If mercantilist logic believed that another’s wealth meant one’s own loss, a capitalist system requires that the seller maximize her profits in order for the buyer to minimize her costs in a win-win situation. The nation therefore comes to desire for her trading partner to make money because otherwise, they would not want to sell goods to oneself. Foucault writes that

On entre dans l’âge d’une historicité économique qui va être commandée par l’enrichissement sinon indéfini, du moins réciproque par le jeu même de la concurrence. (56)

Foucault also notes how this new economic logic caused a series of changes characterizing how Europe relates to the larger world. Notably represented in the work of Kant, Europeans came to think that it was “natural” for different peoples to be spread throughout the world and almost a duty for everyone to trade with each other (59). This mutual trade would cause world peace, since if everyone benefits from exchange, no one would want to ruin the trade relationship. According to this liberal logic, as a result, whether one’s neighbor becomes economically or militarily powerful should not worry one’s own state.

This belief of a natural duty to trade pushes Europeans to bring trade onto the rest of the world. It could also take on “archaic” principles, and here, Foucault uses the Napoleonic conquests as an example. Napoleon practiced modern liberalism domestically and premodern empire abroad. Domestically, Napoleon minimized government, whereas in his invasions, he was “archaic,” “an imperial domination inherited from the Carolingian forms of the Holy Empire.” As Foucault continues,

Ce mélange entre l’idée d’un Empire qui intérieurement garantit des libertés, d’un Empire qui serait la mise en forme européenne du projet révolutionnaire illimité et, enfin, d’un Empire qui serait la reconstitution de la forme carolingienne ou allemande ou autrichienne de l’Empire, c’est tout cela qui a constitué l’espèce de capharnaüm que constitue la politique impériale, celle de Napoléon. (61)

If economic exchange made a country wealthy, then on the one hand, it is natural for a European country to seek new trade partners, and on the other, it is irrational for any potential trade partner to refuse to trade, since trade benefits both parties. Perhaps this explains, in part, the rise of colonial empires during the nineteenth century, which became trade partners primarily for their European colonizers: in doing so, these empires could be to a degree self-sustaining, benefiting from trade while nevertheless not giving extra wealth to their European competitors. Indeed, it seems most reasonable to think that liberalism did not wipe away the Mercantilist fears of balance of power, but merely repressed it from open rhetoric. Although all countries know that trade benefits everyone, a wealthier country at one’s doorstep is also a security threat, such that a balance of trade that ensures a degree of parallel development is a security interest.

IIIb. Naturalism and modern governmentality

Foucault describes a new governmental “naturalism” in which the government seeks to objectively understand their societies, which are governed by natural laws, most importantly economics. The government will hire economic advisors who tell them how they should best govern the people according to the predictive power of the social sciences; the government “limits itself by evidence… not by the liberty of individuals” (63). The grounding problem of government is not to avoid breach of agreed-upon or natural freedoms, but rather to govern according to natural science, which is understood to affect human action. From the perspective of the government, the human becomes principally an object of observation and repetition rather than an individual actor whose rights are to be respected.

IIIc. Modern state as the guardian and producer of liberty; liberalism as self-contradictory, revealed in crisis moments

Herein lies the most interesting part of Foucault’s lecture. Foucault argues that 18th-century liberalism harbors within it its own contradiction: it is not as if early modern Europe did not care about liberty and freedom, but that starting in the eighteenth century, citizens came to expect the state to create for them signs of liberty such as a free market, free speech, and so on. However, a state cannot naturally produce these things, since free speech comes from citizens and a free market comes from their commerce. In liberal nations, citizens not only desire to have liberty in a state, but also see one role of the state as the guardian and provisioner of this liberty. The citizens therefore imagine an active role for the state as the defenders of liberty, for liberty has become something that can be defended, rather than something that humans already have by nature of birth. As Foucault summarizes, the modern state thinks that “I will produce for you the necessary means to be free. I will make sure that you are free to be free” (65).

Foucault argues that the constituting inverse of the state’s guardianship of liberty is the state’s guarantee of its citizens’ security. Security can be from the other people within the body of citizens (the crazy and the deceitful), or it can be from the outside, tangible (an invader) or intangible (a virus, an economic crisis). Under liberalism, all of these elements are seen as infringing upon the “liberty” of its citizens, therefore needing the state to step in as guardian. Rather than seeing liberty as natural, liberalism “fabricates” liberty,

de la susciter et de la produire avec bien entendu [tout l’ensemble] de contraintes, de problèmes de coût que pose cette fabrication. (66)

It is in this sense that Foucault writes about the development of the prison system, and notably the panopticon; Foucault notes the nineteenth-century state paid so much attention to the health of its people to act to create liberty even during times of peace, in the process creating strong social norms and discriminatory attitudes towards those with mental illnesses of non-normative sexual orientations.

People living in liberal societies recognized these inherent contradictions. In particular, when liberalism shakes, as it did during the Great Depression, states fear that something worse will happen that will cause citizens to lose liberties. Therefore, they will control the market such as when during the Great Depression, the American state introduced works projects. Many leaders think that if the market is left to itself, the people will naturally gravitate towards Communism, or Fascism, etc. However, a habit of relying on state interference in the market contradicts the liberal desire for a liberal state and damages the freedoms the state claims to protect (71). The repeatedly reliance on the state managing an economy that was supposed to be left alone, such as was the case in postwar Keynesianism, prompted thinkers to consider alternatives to or revivals of liberalism that would fulfill its promise.

It is for this reason that Foucault describes the rise of neoliberalism as “the crisis of the apparatus (dispositif) of governmentality” (72). In the postwar period, thinkers realize that if the market is the privileged site for truth, then the liberal state’s intervention in the market makes the market inherently unscientific. The state’s management of a crisis differs substantially from the state’s management of law, human rights, and individual liberty necessary for the market to function. The basic idea of liberalism cannot allow for the active state, yet citizens often demand that this state actively interfere in market management. The state may even have no choice lest the ruling power lose legitimacy. Citizens seem to want it both ways: during times of growth, the government should be passively kept out of the way, whereas during times of crisis, the government should actively protect them from the crisis, even as this latter case potentially culminates in either totalitarian Communism or Fascism.

IV. Commentary

Iva. On distinguishing modern “French” and “English” states

I find the distinction between modern “French” and “English” mindsets fascinating, but hard to grasp. Here is an interpretation:

  • The French may think: I have an individual personality, but when I want laws, I do not want to be treated differently because of my individuality, because identifying me as a group will cause others to see me as different, thereby compromising my individual freedom. Therefore, we need to make laws that treat everyone equally, such that the people in the country do not see each other with suspicion.
  • The English may think: I have an individual personality, but the state always threatens to take away my freedom. Therefore, I must preserve my independence by detailing certain pre-state natural rights, but more significantly, by seeing with suspicion every attempt the state has to use force as threatening my individuality. The limitation of the state is far more important than treating each citizen equally, because each citizen is unique a priori.

Both respond to the basic dilemma of being both a unique individual and an abstract citizen within any modern state. It is certain that the both the “French” and the “English” see themselves as both. However, if there are benefits of building a state from the grounding that all of its citizens are incomparably different, there are also benefits of building a state from the grounding that all of its citizens are equal under the law. While the English system may allow for a more nuanced interpretation of the law that accounts for individual circumstances, this interpretation of “individual circumstances” allows for considerable leeway that potentially gives grounds for implicit discriminations and social injustice. That is not to say that the “French” system is paradise, but that there is a clearer distinction between personal individuality and abstract citizenship, whereas I think for many Americans, the idea of being an American citizen without being completely different from every other American is utterly unthinkable.

  1. What would the “French” think of the idea of natural law? The idea of English “common law” relies on the notion that simple habit is a good reason to call something a law: that it is borne of practice and makes sense. In contrast, the French may be a proponent of rational law: that law needs to conform to what makes sense to give all humans, a “rational” that would require debate between scholars and scientists. If so, it would make sense to say that the French would recall to reason, whereas the English would recall to human rights, when it comes to defending a verdict. For the French, there should be no “fundamental human rights” except those that are legalized by the rational state following extensive debate in parliament; for something that is “rational,” “reasoned” is by definition something that is not obvious and apparent. ↩︎