Biopolitics: Liberalism and Rational Human Agency

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Q. Do you think the liberal theory of government has constituted a rational human agency for the market? Discuss. – Aryapriya Ganguly Foucault deploys the concept of government or “governmentality” as a “guideline” for the analysis he offers by way of historical reconstructions embracing a period starting from Ancient Greek through to modern Neo-liberalism. I wish to emphasize two points here, as they seem important for an adequate assessment of the innovative potential of the notion of governmentality.

First of all, the concept of governmentality demonstrates Foucault’s working hypothesis on the reciprocal constitution of power techniques and forms of knowledge. The semantic linking of governing and modes of thought indicates that it is not possible to study the technologies of power without an analysis of the political rationality underpinning them. The evolution of this rationality, as the paper will explore, has been from the medieval notions of monarchy through the eighteenth century conceptualization of liberalism to the modern idea of Neo-liberalism.

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In other words, there are two sides to governmentality (at certain points Foucault also speaks of “the art of government”). First, the term pin-points a specific form of representation; government defines a discursive field in which exercising power is “rationalized”. Second, Foucault uses the concept of government in a comprehensive sense geared strongly to the older meaning of the term and adumbrating the close link between forms of power and processes of subjectification.

This process of subjectification produces the specific rational human agency that the essay will further explore and this is what according to Foucault is the notion of ‘Biopolitics’. All in all, in his history of governmentality Foucault endeavors to show how the rationality of the modern sovereign state and the modern autonomous individual co-determine each other’s emergence. This is where the notion of liberalism enters the present discussion, primarily as the instrument which allows this governmentality to assert its subjecting power on the subjected through the rational agency of the market.

A trajectory, tracing the emergence of liberalism in eighteenth century Europe to the dual manifestations of Neo-liberalism in post-war Germany and America, will be crucial to an understanding of this evolving rationale for the market through ‘Biopolitics’. The duality of Homo Juridicus (the man with rights) and Homo Economicus (the economic man)has held philosophers and thinkers on the functioning of politics in thrall since the sixteenth century. Emanuel Kant’s notion of perpetual peace was premised on the right of every individual to be free and exercise their will. Only then would society, according to Kant, be perfectly harmonious.

Theories of governmentality ever since have been attempts at resolving this dispute between the two modes of societal being. Rosseau’s social contract theory, premised on the idea that ‘man is born free’ is built upon Kant’s notion of perpetual peace and is crucial to understanding the genesis of liberal political theory. Rosseau’s idea translates to equal rights everywhere in the state of nature. This naturalizing of rights sounds the birth pangs of liberalism. Nature, thus turned into a homogenous entity, the very invocation of the idea of nature meant the production of an implicit truth.

The point of departure for Foucault is the eighteenth century. According to him, in the middle of the eighteenth century, the market no longer appeared as the site of jurisdiction. [i] On the contrary, the market appeared as something that, in line with Rousseau, obeyed and had to obey “natural” mechanisms. This is the sense in which the market becomes the site of truth. The market, according to these physiocrats, permits the natural mechanisms to function, allowing the formation of a certain price- the “good price”- which would express an adequate relationship between the cost of production and the extent of demand.

This, for Foucault, is the first factor that defines liberalism. The market- which had been the privileged object of governmental practice for a long time and continued to be in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries under the regime of raison d’etat and a mercantilism which precisely made commerce out of the major instruments of the state’s power- was now constituted as the site of production of truth. The old system of government, according to Foucault, obliged the sovereign to protect the subject. This undergoes a gradual transformation with the mergence of liberalism. The influx of a liberal attitude meant that it was no longer just that kind of external protection of the individual himself which had to be assured. Liberalism provides the rational agency to the subject, allowing him to generate his own freedom. [ii] But the generation of this freedom for the subject was predicated on the development of a new mechanism. Liberalism turns into a mechanism, Foucault says, continually having to arbitrate between the freedom and security of individuals by reference to an abstract notion of danger.

As Foucault alerts us, there was the campaign for savings banks, appearance of detective fiction, campaigns around disease and hygiene which perpetuated a political culture of danger. [iii] Hence, with liberalism, Foucault doesn’t mean to say that we are passing from an authoritarian government in the seventeenth century and at the start of the eighteenth century to a more tolerant government- more lax and flexible.

On the contrary, with the cultivation of a political culture of danger, considerable extension of procedures of control and coercion were affected by governments, heralding the emergence of liberalism in the eighteenth century in Europe. The early proponents of this school of thought were the Utilitarians- John Stuart Mill, James Mill and Jeremy Bentham- in the United Kingdom. And, the ultimate example of the abovementioned procedure of control and coercion was the structure of the ideal prison conceptualized by the Utilitarian-Jeremy Bentham, in 1791.

The panopticon, as he called it, was structured in such a way that the cells would be open to a central tower, having the desired result in which each prisoner would be constantly confronted by the panoptic eye without being able to see the seer. Prisoners must believe that they could be watched at any moment. Bentham argued that this prison system would be a model for how society should function. As each body is persistently policed, one will internalize this policing and begin to police themselves.

This model is the crux of the art of governmentality as it emerges with the flowering of liberalism as an ideology. The Utilitarians also had a role to play in conceptualizing competition- another crucial aspect of liberalism. The emergence of the notion of competition in eighteenth century and with it, of dual profit and reciprocal enrichment, meant that the place the government had previously had, pursuing unlimited objectives within the state, had to be tailored.

This tailoring of government’s powers meant that the employment of the word liberal was in the context of a setting that encouraged the consumption of freedom- freedom of the market, to buy and sell, freedom to discuss and express. So, concomitant with the idea that citizens should internalize policing is the space accorded to this human rationality to emerge through the functioning of the market mechanism. In the European context, this rationale played itself out in the mercantilist setting.

The proliferation of maritime laws during this period, as Foucault points out, is an indicator of the kind of importance ascribed by governments to an “unlimited character of the economic development” of Europe. [iv] There was an attempt to think of the world, or at least the sea, as a space of free competition. Consequently, for the first time in its history, Europe appears an economic unit, considering the world as its economic domain. These were the defining features of Foucault’s notion of the liberal theory of government as it emerged in Europe in the eighteenth century,.

Foucault’s concept of governmentality has inspired many studies in the social sciences and many historical investigations, and it has been especially his analysis of Neo-liberal governmentality that has kindled interest as far as the human agency for the market is concerned. For Foucault, Neo-liberalism differs from liberalism in that liberalism was concerned with how to ‘contrive a free space of the market within an already given political society’, whereas neo-liberalism is concerned with ‘how the overall exercise of political power can be modeled on the principles of a market economy’. v] The rest of the essay will argue how Foucault’s discussion of German Ordo-liberalism and American Neo-liberalism of the Chicago school provides a crucial window to conceptualizing this rational human agency for the market. Foucault’s concept of governmentality has two advantages in theoretical terms for an analysis of neo-liberalism. Given that political leadership is only one form of government among others, the dividing line the liberals draw between the public and private spheres, that is the distinction between the domain of the state and that of society, itself becomes an object of study.

The neo-liberal forms of government feature not only direct intervention by means of empowered and specialized state apparatuses, but also characteristically develop indirect techniques for leading and controlling individuals without at the same time being responsible for them. This strategy of rendering individual subjects “responsible” entails shifting the responsibility for social risks such as illness, unemployment, poverty, etc. and for life in society into the domain for which the individual is responsible and transforming it into a problem of “self-care”.

How this “self-care” is brought into being through neo-liberal governmentality allowing the market rationality of “responsible” citizens to express itself will, therefore, be explored through the twin notions of Neo-liberalism-the German and the American models. The theoretical foundations for German post-War liberalism were drawn up by jurists and economists who in the years 1928-1930 had belonged to the “Freiburg School” or had been associated with it and later published in the journal Ordo. Foucault puts his finger on a series of issues and experiences of the “Freiburg School” which it shared with the “Frankfurt School”.

The two had in common not only the point in time when they first appeared on the scholarly scene — namely the mid-1920s — and a destiny shaped by exile, but both were also part and parcel of a political-academic problematic which prevailed in Germany as of the early 1920s and was closely associated with Max Weber. Weber was important for having shifted Marx’s problem of the contradictory logic of capitalism onto a level where he discussed it as the irrational rationality of capitalist society.

This problem was the point of departure for both schools, but resulted in completely different angles of discussion: The Frankfurt School searched for a new social rationality that would annul and overcome the irrationality of the capitalist economy. The Freiburg School opted for the opposite approach and endeavored to re-define the economic (capitalist) rationality in order to prevent the social irrationality of capitalism from unfolding. [vi] From the viewpoint of the Ordo-liberals, the Third Reich was the inevitable result of a series of anti-liberal policies.

Unlike the Frankfurt School, the Freiburg School therefore believed that the crucial alternative was not between capitalism and socialism, but between liberalism and different forms of state interventionism (Soviet socialism, National socialism, Keynesianism), all of which, if to differing degrees, threaten liberty. Foucault maintains that the theoretical basis for the Ordo-liberals’ conviction was their radical anti-naturalistic conception of the market and of the principle of competition, thereby positing a definite disinheritance from the eighteenth century Naturalized, homogenous liberalism already alerted to in the paper.

In the Ordo-liberal scheme, the market does not amount to a natural economic reality, with intrinsic laws which the art of government must bear in mind and respect; instead, the market can only be constituted and kept alive by dint of political interventions. Pure competition is therefore neither something that exists “naturally”, nor is it something ever completely attained, but provides the justifications for a projected target which necessitated active politics.

Unlike the negative conception of the state typical of liberal theory in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, wherein a “phobia of the state” ruled supreme in the rational space of the market, in the Ordo-liberal view, the market mechanism and the impact of competition can only arise if they are produced by the practice of government. [vii] A discussion of the methodological and theoretical principles underlying Foucault’s concept of governmentality suggests that he initially means in theoretical terms that the strict separation between an economic base and a political-legal superstructure is inappropriate.

This dichotomy is therefore not tenable because the economy is not a domain of natural mechanism, but instead defines a social field of regulated practices. The Homo Juridicus vs Economicus plays itself out yet again. The Ordo-liberals replace the conception of the economy as a domain of autonomous rules and laws by a concept of “economic order” as an object of social intervention and political regulation. [viii] Such a conception of the economic domain includes the necessity of devising a social policy (Foucault uses the original German term “Gesellschaftspolitik”).

A defining feature of the Ordo-liberal scheme consists of forging a social framework in which there is the material basis for the enterprise as a form and which obeys the principle of “equal inequality for all”[ix], further reinforcing the anti-Naturalised nature of this Neo-liberalism. To sum up, the Ordo-liberals replace the conception of the economy as a domain of an autonomous rule by a concept of economic order as an object of social intervention.

The rational human agency in the Neo-liberal theory of governmentality, hence, is made a product of the very governmentality’s machinations, expressing its rational agency in the realm of the market. This theory, therefore, it must be made amply clear is against the role of the state in defining this rational human agency, but is positively oriented to governmental interventions. The Homo Juridicus- Homo Economicus debate reaches its next level of articulation in the American Neo-liberal theory.

Like the Ordo-liberals, the US neo-liberalism of the Chicago School opposed state interventionism and in the name of economic liberty criticized the uncontrolled growth of bureaucratic apparatuses and the threat to individual rights. Foucault suggests that the defining element in the Chicago School’s approach is their consistent expansion of the economic form to apply to the social sphere, thus eliding any difference between the economy and the social. In the process, they transpose economic analytical schemata and criteria for economic decision-making onto spheres which are not, or certainly not exclusively, economic areas.

The rational agency in this scheme of governmentality is thus a deliberate imposition on domains not essentially economic. In other words, the US neo-liberals attempt to re-define the social sphere as a form of the economic domain. The model of rational-economic action serves as a principle for justifying and limiting governmental action, in which context government itself becomes a sort of enterprise whose task it is to universalize competition, thereby giving ample rational human agency to the domain of the social and the market.

This strategic operation relies on a prior epistemological shift which systematically and comprehensively expands the object addressed by the economy and resolves the debate between the Homo Juridicus and the Homo Economicus within the over-arching rationality of the Homo Economicus. Foucault provides two examples to illustrate neo-liberalism’s linking of analytical and programmatic schemes: the theory of human capital and the analysis of criminality, geared towards the resolution of the dichotomy.

The theory of human capital takes its cue from a critique of the treatment of the problem of labor within economic theory. In this, ironically enough, the neo-liberals share Marx’s critique of political economy. While he had regarded the division between concrete and abstract labor as the historical product of capitalist society, for the neo-liberals it is the contingent result of economic theory. For the neo-liberals abstract labor is not the consequence of a capitalist mode of production, but of the inability of political economy to provide a concrete account of labor.

Neo-liberalism offers such a concrete analysis with its theory of human capital. It proceeds not from objective-mechanical laws, but takes its starting point in an appraisal of subjective-voluntarist benefits: How do the people performing the labor use the means at their disposal? In order to be able to answer this question and investigate the significance of work for those performing it, the neo-liberals adopt the subjective vantage point of the person doing the work.

For a wage laborer the wage is by no means the price for selling his/her labor power, but instead represents an income from a special type of capital. In this model, the wage laborers are no longer the employees dependent on a company, but are autonomous entrepreneurs with full responsibility for their own investment decisions and endeavoring to produce surplus value[x], thus reinstating the Neo-liberal position on the complete and absolute flowering of rational human agency for the market. Responsibility for decisions is therefore the crucial residue from the discussion on Human Capital.

This gearing to market criteria is also characteristic of the Chicago School’s analyses of criminality and the function of penal justice. The neo-liberal construct of rationality marks a break with the Homo Criminalis of the nineteenth century and the Neo-liberals thus distance themselves from all psychological, biological or anthropological explanations of crime. The fusion of Homo Juridicus in the larger Homo Economicus can be analysed better through this examination of the evolving governmental attitude toward Homo Criminalis.

Bodies, according to Foucault, were moulded accordingly in different regimes of power, in different discursive formations via the technologies of power (faceless modalities of force comprised within institutions, instruments, and procedures) and thence become “docile bodies”. In Discipline and Punish, published in the same year as the lectures (1979), he also demonstrated how the change in penal practices from the public spectacle of torture of criminals (culture of spectacle) to the individualization of punishment (carceral culture) in the form of individualized prison cells was instrumental in creating new ‘corporeal’ bodies of knowledge. xi]Neo-liberal governmentality is the crucial determining factor in the gradual evolution of the notion of this Homo Criminalis and attitudes to it. The transformation from “docile bodies” to “responsible bodies” within this schemata is crucial to the birth of ‘Biopolitics’. The criminal is a rational-economic individual who invests, expects a certain profit, and risks making a loss, much like any other subject in the Neo-liberal set-up. For the neo-liberals, crime is no longer located outside the market model, but is instead one market among others. This is the notion of a “market for crime”.

And neo-liberal penal theory limits itself to intervention in the market for crime that involves limiting the supply of crime by negative demand, in which context the costs of the market should never exceed the costs of crime. In this approach, good penal policy should never aspire to completely eliminate crime. The neo-liberal program seeks to create neither a disciplining nor a normalizing society, but instead a society characterized by the fact that it cultivates and optimizes differences. It is therefore neither necessary nor desirable for a society to exhibit unlimited conformity.

On the contrary, it can live quite happily with a certain degree of criminality, which is thus not a sign of social dysfunction, but rather that society functions optimally, regulating even the distribution of criminality. [xii] This attitude to criminality ties up with the general notion of environmental input going into the definition of the criminal that is current in American Neo-liberal discourse. The attempt there is not to eradicate crime, but attempt to balance crime and sustain that crime as a minority practice in relation to the dominant ideology of ‘political correctness’.

The ethics of the economy, hence, get mirrored in the ethics of society and consequently, there is the fusion of Homo Criminalis and the Homo Juridicus in the Homo Economicus. Classic liberalism and neo-liberalism, Foucault suggests, as evident from the above discussion, differ above all on two points: The first difference is the re-definition of the relation between the state and the economy. The neo-liberal conception inverts the early liberal model, which rested on the historical experience of an overly powerful absolute state.

Unlike the state in the classical liberal notion of rationality, for the neo-liberals the state does not define and monitor market freedom, for the market is itself the organizing and regulative principle underlying the state. It is the market form which serves as the organizational principle for the state and society. [xiii] The second difference stems from the basis of government. Neo-liberal thought has a central point of reference and support, namely Homo Economicus. The economic individual who rationally calculates costs and benefits is quite unlike the Homo Economicus of the eighteenth century liberal thinkers.

In the classical-liberal version, the freedom of the individual is the technical precondition for rational government, and government may not constrain such freedom if it does not wish to endanger its own foundations. Now, neo-liberalism admittedly ties the rationality of the government to the rational action of individuals. Neo-liberalism no longer locates the rational principle for regulating and limiting the action of government in a natural freedom that we should all respect, but instead it posits an artificially arranged liberty: in the entrepreneurial and competitive behavior of economic-rational individuals.

As regards the shift in delimitation between state and society, the discussion reveals that the Neo-liberal forms of government do not simply lead to a shift in the capacity to act away from the state. In this regard, Foucault seems to believe that reflections on civil society have taken place with respect to understanding the domain within which the state has to limit itself. According to Hegel, it is the civil society out of which state has emerged.

Hence, the state is the highest form of civil society possible, making it impossible for the state to act contrary to the interests of civil society. The discussion on civil society also acknowledges the fact that the subjecthood of citizens is a rational aspect of the art of governmentality. The debate on this civil society’s functionings, hence, is not humanitarian but communitarian- one that has its aim the absolute agency of subjects. The liberal state emerged as the ultimate embodiment of this essential rationality of the subjecthood of citizens.

The neo-liberal theory, working on similar lines, limits the state but is conducive to governmental interventions. The neo-liberal forms of government feature not only direct intervention by means of empowered and specialized state apparatuses, but also characteristically develop indirect techniques for leading and controlling individuals without at the same time being responsible for them. These interventions, the Neo-liberals believe, will result in constituting a rational human, ‘(self-) responsible’ agency of market.

In this way, we can decipher the neo-liberal harmony in which not only the individual body, but also collective bodies and institutions have to be “flexible” and “autonomous”: it is a technique of power geared in the ultimate analysis to a market that will enable this harmony for the rational human agent. Bibliography 1. Foucault, Michel The Birth of Biopolitics Palgrave Macmillan ,2008. 2. Foucault, Michel Discipline and Punish Penguin Books, 1979. Endnotes ———————– i] Foucault, Michel The Birth of Biopolitics Lecture 17 January, 1979 Palgrave Macmillan pg 31 [ii] Foucault, Michel The Birth of Biopolitics Lecture 24 January, 1979 Palgrave Macmillan pg 66-67 [iii] Ibid pg 66 [iv] Ibid pg 55-56 [v] Foucault, Michel The Birth of Biopolitics Lecture 14 February, 1979 Palgrave Macmillan pg 135-137 [vi] Foucault, Michel The Birth of Biopolitics Lecture Feb. 7, 1979 Palgrave Macmillan pg 107-110 [vii] Ibid pg 125-128 [viii] Foucault, Michel The Birth of Biopolitics Lecture Feb. 1, 1979 Palgrave Macmillan pg 174-176 [ix] Foucault, Michel The Birth of Biopolitics Lecture Feb. 14, 1979 Palgrave Macmillan pg 150 [x] Foucault, Michel The Birth of Biopolitics Lecture March 14, 1979 Palgrave Macmillan pg 230-234 [xi] Foucault, Michel Discipline and Punish ‘The Body of the Condemned’ Penguin Books pg 172-174 [xii] Foucault, Michel The Birth of Biopolitics Lecture March 21, 1979 Palgrave Macmillan pg 254-256 [xiii] Foucault, Michel The Birth of Biopolitics Lecture Feb. 7, 1979 Palgrave Macmillan pg 116-117

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