In this article, adapted from a paper I wrote with Christine Cooper and Darlene Himick, I want to sketch out Michel Foucault’s concept of biopolitics.
I will want to use this concept in a later article to explain how certain new forms of financing for social programs work. Special interest groups, including some (mainly) well-meaning folks in the finance industry, are attempting to do away with traditional government funding for social programs and replace it with complex financial instruments that will pay a return to investors. In order to analyse these new financial arrangements, we first have to understand the basic principles of how we govern populations today.
All this has very much to do with the major issues we are struggling with today. Biopolitics explains, for instance, Republican opposition to Obamacare in the US. It also explains the widespread cutbacks to education and other social services in many countries. So, an investment in learning about biopolitics is worth the effort.
Michel Foucault was a French social theorist who died in 1984. His analysis of how society has come to be governed the way it is, was astonishingly prescient. You can see some of his deep insights coming to the surface today, almost 40 years later, for all of us to see.
His concept of biopolitics has to do with how we as a society address the peculiar problems presented by the need to govern populations of human beings. If you think about historical forms of government, such as monarchies in the middle ages (think Henry VIII) or mercantilism in the 17th and 18th centuries (think the Hudson’s Bay Company or the British East India Company), the central issues of government weren’t about governing the average person. They were about establishing loyalty to the throne, or conquering foreign lands and extracting their wealth.
Foucault argued that biopolitics stemmed from a liberal rationale for government, meaning that government should do only what is necessary and otherwise should let people do what they want. The central principle of liberalism, said Foucault, was that “‘One always governs too much’—or at least, one should always suspect that one governs too much” (Foucault, 2008, p. 319). In other words, Foucault did not see liberalism as a utopia of individual freedom so much as an analytical tool for criticizing the state.
German and American Neoliberalism
Foucault argued that a new robust form of liberalism, neoliberalism, arose after World War II. Foucault identified two versions of neoliberalism. One came from Germany, where scholars were doing the difficult work of articulating the lessons of Nazi totalitarianism. The other came from the US, where Ronald Coase, Eugene Fama, Milton Friedman, and others members of the Chicago school of economics were reacting to the Keynesian fiscal policies and social programs of the day.
Both the German and the US versions maintained the earlier liberal concern with excessive government (“one always governs too much”). In German neoliberalism, market competition was considered the best way to prevent the excessive private and public concentrations of power seen in Nazi Germany. Government regulation should be used to establish and promote free markets. However, German neoliberals recognized that free markets carry certain risks that can harm individuals. These risks should be mitigated through “safety net” policies such as unemployment benefits, healthcare coverage, regulation of the housing market, and so.
American neoliberalism, in contrast, saw markets as the solution to everything. The best way to deal with the risks of free markets was to place that risk squarely on the shoulders of individuals, so that they would be forced to respond with appropriate personal choice that together would energize the economy.
It is American-style neoliberalism that we see in ascendancy today, especially in the UK and the US. It consists of a deliberate effort to extend free markets into all social arenas. Back in 1978, Foucault argued that this would mean extending economic analysis into fields that were previously considered non-economic, such as culture and education.
Neoliberalism today does not try to fix the underlying structural causes of social problems. It does not, for instance, seek to solve the problem of homelessness by building affordable housing or by subsidizing rents. Rather, it seeks to create the conditions whereby individuals can be held responsible for their own choices – which, it is argued, have led to them being poor. In economic terms, the goal is to get individuals to produce and consume sufficiently to meet their own requirements and contribute to the economy.
Homo Economicus: Individuals as Entrepreneurs
Foucault argues that the extension of market principles down to the level of the individual leads logically to the neoliberal ideal of the individual as entrepreneur. He argues that extending “the economic mechanisms of the game, the mechanisms of competition and enterprise” into all parts of society will require everyone to be “an enterprise for himself or for his family” (Foucault, 2008, p. 206).
In the neoliberal way of thinking and governing, Foucault argues (p. 225), the focus is not so much on processes and mechanisms in the economy, or even on the individual as a person, but on individuals as enterprises, which are for neoliberals the basic building block of society. Foucault says that the individual is no longer homo sapiens, but homo economicus. By this Foucault does not mean merely that the central concern of neoliberal policy is the exchange of goods and services between individuals. Rather, the central concern is the individual as an entrepreneur of himself, as someone who is concerned to build up his* own capital, who is for himself his own producer and his own source of earnings (p. 226).
What this means, to be explicit, is that under neoliberal policies of government, the poor should not be seen as the victims of social and economic forces over which they have no control, but as failed entrepreneurs. The value of an individual human being is his or her future cash flows.
We will see in the next article how this plays out in the financial technologies now colonizing the field of homelessness.
* Note that I am deliberately using masculine pronouns here. This simply recognizes the inescapable implications of the alignment of fiscal conservatism and social conservatism today, especially evident in the attacks on women’s healthcare in the US. This alignment means, frankly, that women are not valued as economic producers. But don't take my word for it. Read Margaret Atwood yourself.
Photos of chipmunks taken in Yoho Valley in July 2004.
Photo of snowbound tulip taken in Calgary on May 10, 2004. Yes, May 10th. That's Calgary for you.
Foucault, M. (1978). History of Sexuality Volume 1 : An Introduction (R. Hurley, Trans.). New York: Pantheon Books.
Foucault, M. (2008). The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-79 (G. Burchell, Trans.). Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.