Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics - Chapter One

I am convening a reading group on Michel Foucault's lectures at the College de France 1978-79, now published under the title The Birth of Biopolitics, at QUT tomorrow. Information about the meeting can be found here, and the rationale for the event is as follows:

In light of considerable interest in the term “neo-liberalism”, its historical origins, and its uses and misuses – including its use by Australian Prime Minster Kevin Rudd – we have decided to get together an informal working group to discuss how the term was developed by the French philosopher Michel Foucault.

Foucault’s lectures at the College de France in 1978-79 have only now been translated and published. In these lectures he traces a history of liberalism as an “art of government”, and its relationship to political economy and to government policy.

In the lectures, Foucault focuses upon the origins of the term “neo-liberalism” among the Freiberg School of German social thinkers, and its later uses by the Chicago School of American political economists. This is traced to changing ideas about the relationship between the individual, the state, society and economy.

The first meeting will focus upon how the idea of neo-liberalism was developed in Germany and applied through the “social market economy” in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Later meetings will consider American neo-liberalism as developed by Milton Freidman, Gary Becker and others, and contrasts between the neo-liberal “art of government” and alternative approaches.
As part of the preparation for these gatherings, I am summarising the lectures on this blog. Below are my notes on the first lecture, which was presented by Foucault on 10 Janaury, 1979.

• “Art of government” – interest in this instance is in “government … insofar as it appears as the exercise of political sovereignty” (p. 2)

• Why an “art”? Not a description of how governors really governed, but rather “the level of reflection in the practice of government and on the practice of government” - “the study of the rationalization of governmental practice in the exercise of political sovereignty” (p. 2)

• Starting point is not with pre-given objects or universal categories, but rather “starting from this practice as it is given, but at re same time as it reflects on itself and it rationalized, show how certain things – state and society, sovereignty and subjects etc. – were actually able to be formed” – aim is “to start with these concrete practices and … pass these universals through the grid of these practices” (p. 3)

Raison d’Etat (reason of state) – established the state as both the object and the instrument of governmental practice – ‘a practice … which places itself between a tstae presented as given and a state presented as having to be constructed and built’ (p. 4) – strengthening the state as the guiding principle of government – principles included mercantilist economics, ‘police’ as an unlimited system of internal management, and permanent military-diplomatic apparatus

• Juridical challenge to raison d’Etat proposes that the law must set limits to the sovereign power – contract theory, natural law, parliament/Crown balance in England – ‘the opposition always takes a legal challenge to raison d’Etat and consequently uses juridical reflection, legal rules and legal authority against it’ (p. 9)

• Political economy emerges not as an external challenge to raison d’Etat, but rather as ‘establishing a principle of limitation that will no longer be extrinsic to the art of government, as law was in the C17th, but intrinsic to it; an internal regulation of governmental rationality’ (p. 10). Six principles of this internal limitation:

  1. It is a de facto limitation rather than a legal one, meaning there is no illegimitacy to exceeding this limit, but it will lead to less effective government
  2. It is nonetheless a general one and ‘the problem is precisely one of defining this general and de facto limit that government will have to impose on itself
  3. The principle of limitation is itself calculated through governmental reason and its objectives rather than something external to it (God, law, social contract etc.)
  4. This establishes a division between what must be done by government and what it is advisable not to do, but not in terms of a domain of freedom and constraint grounded in individuals, but rather in the ‘agenda’ and the ‘non-agenda’ (Jeremy Bentham)
  5. This arises in the context of transactions between subjects rather than a historically or theoretically defined ‘principle of right’
  6. Critical governmental reason thus becomes internal to government – a continual practice of criticism about ‘how not to govern too much’ (p. 13)
• Political economy as it emerges between 1750 and 1810-1820 is central to this, but it does not develop in opposition to raison d’Etat, but rather within the principle of governmental reason to maximize wealth in the context of competition between states e.g. the issue is not whether or not a tax is legitimate, but rather what the optimal rate of tax may be in light of its possible effects – it is an empirical practice concerned with making mechanisms intelligible ‘success or failure, rather than legitimacy or illegitimacy, now become the criteria of governmental action’ (p. 16)

• Political economy is central to liberalism as a new regime of truth alternative to that of raison d’Etat, where ‘a government is never sufficiently aware that it always risks governing too much, or a government never knows too well how to govern just enough’ (p. 17) – ‘With this question of self-limitation by the principle of truth, I think political economy introduced a formidable wedge into the unlimited presumption of the police state’ (p. 17)

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