Michel Foucault, “Governmentality,” in The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, ed. Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon, and Peter Miller (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 87–104.
[Google Drive Link]
From 1970 until his death, Michel Foucault occupied the chair, created in November 1969, called “The History of Systems of Thought” at the Collège de France. In this institution, all professors (each of them occupies a chair and there are 51 of them at the moment, i.e. in 2018), are obliged to present their original research through courses which are completely open to all. Foucault taught there from January 1971 until his death in June 1984. “Governmentality” was a lecture presented on 1 February 1978 as part of the course on “Security, Territory, Population”.
A (very slightly) edited version was republished in Power, ed. Paul Rabinow, vol. 3, The Essential Works of Michel Foucault: 1954-1984 (New York: The New Press, 1997), 201–22.
A new (and much better) translation — not least because it was directly translated from the French unlike the other one which was translated from an Italian translation — with very useful footnotes can be found in Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the College de France, 1977-78, ed. Michel Senellart, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 87–114.
[Google Drive Link]
This is a complex lecture and assumes a fairly well-read student.
If “governmentality” is completely new to you, check out this YouTube video (from an International Relations perspective, 11 minutes), this Encyclopedia Britannica entry and this learned introduction from the blog Critical Legal Thinking, in order, before proceeding.
Note that the phrase “art of government” is used in two different senses — that (interpreted to be) espoused by Machiavelli, and that espoused by the writers responding to Machiavelli.
Even more fundamentally, the term “government” itself has a very broad general meaning. As he clarifies in the lecture of 8 February:
Before it acquires its specifically political meaning in the sixteenth century, we can see that “to govern,” covers a very wide semantic domain in which it refers to movement in space, material subsistence, diet, the care given to an individual and the health one can assure him, and also to the exercise of command, of a constant, zealous, active, and always benevolent prescriptive activity. It refers to the control one may exercise over oneself and others, over someone’s body, soul, and behavior. And finally it refers to an intercourse, to a circular process or process of exchange between one individual and another. Anyway, one thing clearly emerges through all these meanings, which is that one never governs a state, a territory, or a political structure. Those whom one governs are people, individuals, or groups.
Also, an important distinction that runs throughout the course, including this lecture, is the one drawn between sovereignty, discipline, and security, or more precisely between legal mechanisms, disciplinary mechanisms, and apparatuses of security. The best introduction to these will be the first three lectures which precede this lecture which is being summarised. I need not dwell on the significance especially of the notions of discipline which he had explored in Discipline and Punish and apparatus (dispositif) which is the object of the 1978 course.
Political writing concerning the ‘art’ of government — of the self (by the self), of souls (by the priest), of children (by the father/teacher) and, especially, of the state (by the prince) — develops and flourishes starting from the 16th century till the end of the 18th. Questions concerning “[h]ow to govern oneself, how to be governed, how to govern others, by whom the people will accept being governed, how to become the best possible governor” — the “problematic of government” — become salient in this period thanks to the double movement of (a) state centralisation due to the fall of feudalism and (b) religious dispersion due to the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation.
What emerges in these writings as the actual definition of what is meant by the government of the state may be fruitfully examined against the backdrop of Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince which is the starting point and well as the point of departure for the new literature on the art of government.
For this new literature, Machiavelli’s Prince was characterized by one principle: he exists in a relationship of “externality and singularity” to his principality. That’s to say, the Prince has no “fundamental, essential, natural and juridical connection” with his principality, as opposed to say, the father who has precisely such a connection with his child. “The link that binds him to his principality may have been established through violence, through family heritage or by treaty, with the complicity or the alliance of other princes; this makes no difference, the link in any event remains a purely synthetic one.” This being so, the link is fragile and constantly under threat. If the prince wants to maintain his principality, he has to strengthen this link and it is this link — “the prince’s relation with what he owns” — that is the object of Machiavelli’s art of government. To put the point more blatantly, the object of government is not the principality, or the even the people who comprise that principality, but rather the tenuous and fragile link which connects the Prince to his principality.
As a consequence of this the mode of analysis of Machiavelli's text will be twofold: to identify dangers (where they come from, what they consist in, their severity: which are the greater, which the slighter), and, secondly, to develop the art of manipulating relations of force that will allow the prince to ensure the protection of his principality, understood as the link that binds him to his territory and his subjects.
It is this very notion of the art of government extant in Machiavelli that is being questioned by the new political writing. The authors writing in response to Machiavelli argue that possessing this particular art of government, that of holding on to one’s principality which they find espoused by Machiavelli, does not amount to possessing the art of government. Machiavelli’s art of government cannot be the actual (true/proper) art of government: the art of government is something else. What does it comprise?
Consider Guillaue de La Perrière’s Le Miroir politique, contenant diverses manières de gouverner (1555).
Firstly, it is recognised that the art of government in not to be associated with the prince alone. La Perrière writes that the term “governor can signify monarch, emperor, king, prince, lord, magistrate, prelate, judge and the like”. This may seem purely terminological but has important political implications because it suggests that there are multifarious forms of government (see first paragraph) among which the Prince governing his state is only one. In addition, these forms of government are internal to the state. That’s to say that the government of the family by the father, for instance, happens within the boundaries of the state. The art of government in this view is then characterised by “plurality and immanence” while for Machivelli’s Prince, the art of government is characterised by “singularity and externality”.
Of course, in this plurality, the special case of the government of the state — a form of government which is to be applied to the state as a whole — remains to be articulated.
François de La Mothe Le Vayer distinguishes between “three fundamental types of government, each of which relates to a particular science or discipline: the art of self-government, connected with morality; the art of properly governing a family, which belongs to economy; and finally the science of ruling the state, which concerns politics.”
The important point is that these three forms form an ascending continuity in that “person who wishes to govern the state well must first learn how to govern himself, his goods and his patrimony, after which he will be successful in governing the state.” This ascending continuity is ensured by the education of the prince. Le Vayer wrote for the French Dauphin, Louis XIV, first a treatise of morality, then a book of economics and lastly a political treatise.
They form a descending continuity as well in that “when a state is well run, the head of the family will know how to look after his family, his goods and his patrimony, which means that individuals will, in turn, behave as they should.” This continuity in which the good government of the state affects individual conduct or family management is secured by what came to be known as the “police”.
The central term here between these forms of government, the connector, is the government of the family, termed economy. Essentially, concern with the art of government of the state as a whole becomes that of introducing the management of the family — the meticulous attention that the father devotes to his wife, children, servants, and the family’s fortunes — into into the management of the state. Put differently, the concern becomes that of turning private economy — the proper way of managing individuals, goods, and wealth — into political economy.
[T]he problem, writes [Jean-Jacques] Rousseau [in Discours sur l’économie politique], is how to introduce [the wise government of the family], mutatis mutandis, and with all the discontinuities that we will observe below, into the general running of the state. To govern a state will therefore mean to apply economy, to set up an economy at the level of the entire state, which means exercising towards its inhabitants, and the wealth and behaviour of each and all, a form of surveillance and control as attentive as that of the head of a family over his household and his goods.
Secondly, La Perrière defines government as “the right disposition of things, arranged so as to lead to a convenient end. (emphasis added)” What are these “things”? “Things” are men in their relationships with things like customs, habits, ways of acting and thinking. For Machiavelli, the objects or targets of his power are his territory and its inhabitants. For La Perrière, it is something else. The “things” to be governed are neither the subjects nor the territory in which they live. Rather they are men in their relationships, bonds, and complex involvements with things like wealth, resources, means of subsistence, and, of course, the territory with its borders, qualities, climate, dryness, fertility, and so on.
Governing a ... family, does not essentially mean safeguarding the family property; what concerns it is the individuals that compose the family, their wealth and prosperity. It means to reckon with all the possible events that may intervene, such as births and deaths, and with all the things that can be done, such as possible alliances with other families; it is this general form of management that is characteristic of government.
Thirdly, government is directed to ‘a convenient end’. For theorists of sovereignty, the object or end of sovereignty is the common good which is essentially obedience to the law, whether divinely ordained or legislated by mortals. This end of sovereignty is realised by the exercise of sovereignty. Note the singular and circular logic. The good (which is the end) is obedience to the law, so that the good proposed by sovereignty is that people obey the sovereign. In La Perrière, this end is not “the form of the common good”. Rather, it is something which is “‘convenient’ for each of the things that are to be governed.” The end then is not a singular and circular one but a plurality of specific ends. Moreover, these ends are to be attained not by imposing laws (like the sovereign does) but instead by disposing — managing or arranging — things in ways such that the specific ends may be achieved.
I believe we are at an important turning point here: whereas the end of sovereignty is internal to itself and possesses its own intrinsic instruments in the shape of its laws, the finality of government resides in the things it manages and in the pursuit of the perfection and intensification of the processes which it directs; and the instruments of government, instead of beings laws, now come to be a range of multiform tactics.
Lastly, and this is a simple and elementary point, what is central to government is that the governor be patient, meaning that the true governor should not need a weapon for killing, a sword, in order to exercise his government. This being the case, the governor must be wise, understood as having knowledge of the things he manages and diligent, understood as his acting in such a way as if he were in the service of those he is governing.
This abstract notion of the art of government did not remain speculative but had correlations in reality. It got linked to (a) the development of various administrative and governmental apparatuses, (b) forms of knowledge having to do with the state, i.e., the science of government or “statistics”, and (c) mercantilism and cameralism in the late 16th and early 17th century.
[Comment: The 2007 translation which was prepared based on audio recordings of the lecture reports that all previous versions and translations, including the one used for this summary, have some sentences missing (after cameralism, see previous paragraph) and an extra paragraph (the paragraph that spans pages 96-97 in the translation used [from The Foucault Effect]). The summary follows the new translation in this regard. End Comment]
However, this notion of the art of government could not realise its full scope before the 18th century. For one, there were “massive and elementary historical causes”. These were such events as the Thirty Years War, peasant and urban rebellions, and the crises of finance. The art of government could only spread and develop in subtlety in an age of expansion, free from the great military, political and economic tensions.
For another, the continued pre-eminence of the problem of sovereignty, for reasons already hinted at, left little space for the art of government to develop sufficiently autonomously. Consider mercantilism. It represents the first application of the art of government. It is the “first rationalisation of the exercise of power as a practice of government”. However, as its object was the sovereign’s might, and its instruments — laws, decrees, regulations — those of sovereignty, it remained immobilized by the institution of sovereignty. The art of government, then, was hampered by the rigid, large, and abstract framework of sovereignty. It is in order to make workable the art of government without dispensing the overall framework of sovereignty that the theories of contract appear in the 17th century.
This art of government tried, so to speak, to reconcile itself with the theory of sovereignty by attempting to derive the ruling principles of an art of government from a renewed version of the theory of sovereignty — and this is where those seventeenth-century jurists come into the picture who formalize or ritualize the theory of the contract. Contract theory enables the founding contract, the mutual pledge of ruler and subjects, to function as a sort of theoretical matrix for deriving the general principles of an art of government.
And finally, the art of government suffered because of its continued reliance on the weak and thin model of the family. How could this model of the family — too thin, too weak and too insubstantial — hope to succeed at the level of the state?
How then was the art of government able to outflank these obstacles?
The rigid framework of sovereignty was broken by the emergence of the problem of population and the subsequent rise of the science of government (or statistics). Statistics refocused the political economy on the population (which is analogous to the family in private economy). It also helped in identifying problems specific to the population which in turn enabled reflection on the art of government outside the juridical framework of sovereignty.
“In what way did the problem of population make possible the derestriction of the art of government?”
First, it helped overcome the limiting model of the family as a model for government by providing a new model, that of population. Statistics enabled the quantification of the specific phenomena of population — deaths, diseases, scarcity, epidemics, aggregate wealth, etc. — and showed that these specificities are irreducible to the dimension of the family, which then had to disappear as the model of government. The family no longer remains a model but instead becomes a privileged instrument since the information that will constitute the statistics of the population has to be collected on the basis of the family.
The new science called political economy arises out of the perception of new networks of continuous and multiple relations between population, territory and wealth; and this is accompanied by the formation of a type of intervention characteristic of government, namely intervention in the field of economy and population. In other words, the transition which takes place in the 18th century from an art of government to a political science, from a regime dominated by structures of sovereignty to one ruled by techniques of government, turns on the theme of population and hence also on the birth of political economy.
Second, population — its welfare, improvement, health and wealth — became the end of government, that is to say, the target of its tactics and techniques. The end of government is no longer the act of government itself as it was with sovereignty but the government of the needs and aspirations of the population.
Third, the population and the processes (or ‘specificities’) related to it becomes the object of knowledge for the government. It is the population that government will have to take into account in order to govern effectively in a rationally reflected manner. “The constitution of a savoir of government is absolutely inseparable from that of a knowledge of all the processes related to population in Its larger sense: that is to say, what we now call the economy.” And it is here, in the transition from structures of sovereignty to techniques of government centered on the population, that the art of government becomes the science of government.
[T]he transition which takes place in the eighteenth century from an art of government to a political science, from a regime dominated by structures of sovereignty to one ruled by techniques of government, turns on the theme of population and hence also on the birth of political economy.
Having said these, neither sovereignty nor discipline became less important as the art of government developed into the science of government. In fact, the question of sovereignty was posed with more sharpness at this stage when it, given the existence and deployment of an art of government, had to be given a juridical form and foundation.
[Comment: Foucault retracts the word “science” in the following lecture of 8 February.
In short, we need to analyze the relations of power on which the sixteenth century arts of government set their sights, which are also the target of seventeenth century mercantilist theory and practice, and which, finally, are the aim — and maybe reach a certain threshold of, I think last week I said science, but this is a thoroughly bad and disastrous word; let’s say a certain level of political competence — in, broadly speaking, the physiocratic doctrine of “economic government”.
Consider Rousseau’s Political Economy (1755) and The Social Contract (1762) in chronological succession. In the former, he remarks that the model of the family is no longer adequate for the general problem of population. Private economy is quite distinct from political economy. Then, in the latter, the concern is how a general principle of government can be found that will allow for both the juridical principle of sovereignty and the elements of the art of government. The problem of sovereignty does not disappear.
Much the same can be said for discipline. It was never more important or more valued than when the attempt was made to manage the population. “[T]he managing of a population not only concerns the collective mass of phenomena, the level of its aggregate effects, it also implies the management of population in its depths and its details.”
Accordingly, we need to see things not in terms of the replacement of a society of sovereignty by a disciplinary society and the subsequent replacement of a disciplinary society by a society of government; in reality one has a triangle, sovereignty–discipline–government, which has as its primary target the population.
Instead of calling this course “Security, Territory, Population”, it would have been better to call it “A History of Governmentality”. By governmentality is meant at least the following three things. First, it is the realisation/exercise of a complex form of power targeted towards management of the population by the ensemble of “institutions, procedures, analyses and reflections, the calculations and tactics”, using political economy as the form of knowledge, through “apparatuses of security”. Second, it is the process by which this particular form of power with its associated apparatuses of security and the complexes of knowledge have become pre-eminent. Third, it is the process by which the state has assumed this form of power, i.e., the process by which the state has become governmentalised.
The ensemble formed by the institutions, procedures, analyses and reflections, the calculations and tactics that allow the exercise of this very specific albeit complex form of power, which has as its target population, as its principal form of knowledge political economy, and as its essential technical means apparatuses of security.
The tendency which, over a long period and throughout the West, has steadily led towards the pre-eminence over all other forms (sovereignty, discipline, etc.) of this type of power which may be termed government, resulting, on the one hand, in the formation of a whole series of specific governmental apparatuses, and, on the other, in the development of a whole complex of savoirs.
The process, or rather the result of the process, through which the state of justice of the Middle Ages, transformed into the administrative state during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, gradually becomes ‘governmentalized’.
To assert that the state has become governmentalised is to reject the both the simplistic understanding of state as a cold monster hell-bent on subjugating us as well as the reductionist understanding of the state as the performer of such and such functions.
Somewhere still there are peoples and herds, but not where we live, my
brothers: here there are states.
State? What is that? Well then, lend me your ears now, for I shall say
my words about the death of peoples.
State is the name of the coldest of all cold monsters. It even lies coldly,
and this lie crawls out of its mouth: “I, the state, am the people.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part I, (Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy).
This is important because “the state, no more probably today than at any other time in its history, does not have this unity, this individuality, this rigorous functionality, nor, to speak frankly, this importance; maybe, after all, the state is no more than a composite reality and a mythicized abstraction, whose importance is a lot more limited than many of us think. Maybe what is really important for our modernity — that is, for our present — is not so much the étatisation of society as the ‘governmentalization’ of the state.”
 Whether or not this interpretation is correct is not important. What is important is the it was interpreted in this way.
“Let us leave aside the question of whether the interpretation of Machiavelli in these debates was accurate or not.” (p. 89)
 Consider this metaphor. To govern a ship means to take care of the ship and sailors. But it also means to take care of its cargo, to reckon with storms, to establish relations between the sailors and the cargo and the ship all of which are to be taken care of. Government relates to this complex of men and things.
 Foucault contrasts sovereignty with government as part of this point. The end of sovereignty, understood as the common good, is achieved essentially by obedience to the law, which is given by the sovereign. The purpose of sovereignty then is served by the exercise of sovereignty. The end of government, on the other hand, is a plurality of specific ends which are convenient for each of the things governed and which will be achieved through a mutiplicity of tactics, of which law is but only one. The purpose of government is served by the application of tactics to the things it manages.