Poverty as Biopolitics by Akhil Gupta — A Summary

Akhil Gupta, “Poverty as Biopolitics,” in Red Tape: Bureaucracy, Structural Violence, and Poverty in India (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012): 3–39.

Any study of the state in India must try to address one central puzzle: “After more than sixty years of development efforts by the postcolonial state, why do so many of India’s citizens continue to be subjected to the cruelties of endemic hunger and malnutrition and to be deprived of such basic necessities as clothing, shelter, clean water, and sanitation?”

One could argue that the high poverty rates and poor social development indices are merely a residual feature of muddled Nehruvian economic policies and that with liberalisation, the situation has improved dramatically. However, it is precisely this satisfaction with the achievements of liberalisation in recent years that has effaced discussion on the problem of poverty. “[T]he scandal of the state lies in its failure to acknowledge that condemning an estimated 250–450 million people to a premature and untimely death constitutes a crisis of grave proportions.”

My concern here is with what should be considered “exceptional, a tragedy and a disgrace, but is not: the invisible forms of violence that result in the deaths of millions of the poor, especially women, girls, lower caste people, and indigenous people.” What makes a tragedy of such proportions invisible?

And my argument is that “extreme poverty should be theorized as a direct and culpable form of killing made possible by state policies and practices rather than as an inevitable situation in which the poor are merely “allowed to die” or “exposed to death.” To see this — to see death because of extreme poverty as a form of thanatopolitics — allows us to make important interventions.

Firstly, deaths are not inevitable: far from it, despite being preventable they are not prevented. But why is this so? Why does the death of a few thousand due to a natural disaster provoke the kind of response that the death of millions due to poverty doesn’t? Perhaps this is because the poor are excluded from national projects of development, democratic politics, and cultural citizenship.

But, and this is the second point, the poor are killed despite their inclusion in projects of national sovereignty and despite their centrality to democratic politics and state legitimacy. This is not to say that the problem is bureaucratic apathy. Apathetic bureaucrats do exist no doubt but the question raised is this: even if all state officials were sincerely devoted to the task of eradicating poverty, would the procedures of the bureaucracy end up subverting even their best intentions? The argument is that it would.

Biopolitics, Bare Life,
and Legitimate Violence

There are two features that any understanding of the relation between the state in India and the poor should take into account. For one, that the task of caring for the population is taken seriously by the state and carried out well beyond a utilitarian calculus. For another, despite this approach, the poor are exposed to death on an ongoing basis without causing anyone to be alarmed. Of course this state of affairs is a contradiction. What gives?

A possible answer emerges from Michel Foucault who charts the development of biopower in terms of a focus on the population as a whole where what is normal is discovered and established through statistical analysis. And it is the normal — a certain level of mortality, for instance — that is the object of control.

What does this new technology of power, this biopolitics, this biopower that is beginning to establish itself, involve? I told you very briefly a moment ago; a set of processes such as the ratio of births to deaths, the rate of reproduction, the fertility of a population, and so on. It is these processes — the birth rate, the mortality rate, longevity, and so on — together with a whole series of related economic and political problems ... which, in the second half of the eighteenth century, become biopolitics’ first objects of knowledge and the targets it seeks to control.

Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, trans. David Macey, ed. Arnold I. Davidson (New York: Picador, 2003) p. 244.

“In the Indian case, high rates of poverty, once established as a statistical fact and as the normal state of affairs, served to justify and legitimate slow action against poverty on the part of state elites, particularly since there was not much change in rates of poverty in the first five decades after Independence.”

When policymakers establish goals through the norm of high poverty and employ a discourse about the difficulty of reducing poverty in a big, complex country like India, they uncannily echo the justifications used previously for explaining why India could not accelerate economic growth.

But there are at least two problems with this concept of biopower. It does not explain why some poor people do in fact receive help. It also does not address adequately the questions of violence.

An improvement is Giorgio Agamben’s distinction between “being killed” as opposed to passively “being allowed to die.” Perhaps, the poor in India are like the protagonist in Homo Sacer and it would be more appropriate to see the violence against them as killing rather than simply as allowing to die or exposing to death. Afterall, “Their death is not recognized as a violation in any respect: not a violation of a norm, a rule, a law, a constitutional principle, not even perhaps of the idea of justice.”

The protagonist of this book is bare life, that is, the life of homo sacer (sacred man) , who may be killed and yet not sacrificed, and whose essential function in modern politics we intend to assert. An obscure figure of archaic Roman law, in which human life is included in the juridical order [ordinamento] solely in the form of its exclusion (that is, of its capacity to be killed), has thus offered the key by which not only the sacred texts of sovereignty but also the very codes of political power will unveil their mysteries.

The Foucauldian thesis will then have to be corrected or, at least, completed, in the sense that what characterizes modern politics is not so much the inclusion of zoe in the polis — which is, in itself, absolutely ancient — nor simply the fact that life as such becomes a principal object of the projections and calculations of State power. Instead the decisive fact is that, together with the process by which the exception everywhere becomes the rule, the realm of bare life — which is originally situated at the margins of the political order — gradually begins to coincide with the political realm, and exclusion and inclusion, outside and inside, bios and zoe, right and fact, enter into a zone of irreducible indistinction.

Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller Roazen (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1998) p. 8–9.

However, in Agamben, the idea of homo sacer is integrally connected to the existence of a strong sovereign whose injunction produces the former by excluding him. This does not seem persuasive when the state under consideration, i.e. the state in India, does not have the unity of a sovereign but is pluricentered, multileveled, and decentralized. In addition, the poor are not excluded. They are enthusiastic practitioners of participatory democracy at different levels of politics.

This reminds us of the puzzle already hinted at: If the poor are integral to popular sovereignty, what explains the widespread acceptance of the incredible violence inflicted on them?

Poverty as Structural Violence

What justifies the use of the term violence to describe poverty? Why or how is it structural? Even if it is structural violence, why link it to the state?

Max Weber used violence in his definition of the state to refer to a direct act of force that causes physical harm to another person.

Today, however, we have to say that a state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory. Note that ‘territory’ is one of the characteristics of the state. Specifically, at the present time, the right to use physical force is ascribed to other institutions or to individuals only to the extent to which the state permits it. The state is considered the sole source of the ‘right’ to use violence. Hence, ‘politics’ for us means striving to share power or striving to influence the distribution of power, either among states or among groups within a state.

Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation,” in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (London: Routledge, 2009), p. 78.

Instead of that familiar use, I am borrowing the term structural violence from Johan Galtung whose definition includes “any situation in which some people are unable to achieve their capacities or capabilities to their full potential, and almost certainly if they are unable to do so to the same extent as others”.

As a point of departure, let us say that violence is present when human beings are being influenced so that their actual somatic and mental realizations are below their potential realizations. This statement may lead to more problems than it solves. However, it will soon be clear why we are rejecting the narrow concept of violence - according to which violence is somatic incapacitation, or deprivation of health, alone (with killing as the extreme form), at the hands of an actor who intends this to be the consequence. If this were all violence is about, and peace is seen as its negation, then too little is rejected when peace is held up as an ideal. Highly unacceptable social orders would still be compatible with peace. Hence, an extended concept of violence is indispensable but that concept should be a logical extension, not merely a list of undesirables.

Johan Galtung, “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research,” Journal of Peace Research 6, no. 3 (1969):168.

“The reason such violence is considered to be structural is that it is impossible to identify a single actor who commits the violence. Instead, the violence is impersonal, built into the structure of power. Far from being intended, violence in this sense does not even have to be caused by a particular agent.”

What one finds here is a classically structuralist social theory wedded to consequentialism. Galtung’s interest is in outcomes, not in processes. Whenever outcomes are unequal, violence is present. In fact, in this way of thinking, any system with less than full equality displays evidence of violence.

Structural violence is constant, not episodic. And instead of disrupting actors’ understandings of their social worlds, structural violence provides them with a particular kind of situated knowledge with its own epistemic certainties. However, the episodic and disruptive event continues to be important.

“In the case of structural violence, although there is a victim — someone who is injured by the inequities of social arrangements — it is hard to identify a perpetrator. It is not a victimless crime but its opposite: a crime without a criminal.”

The use of the term “violence” is perilous but there is one overwhelming reason why it is advisable to retain it: “it keeps one’s attention on its impact on mortality”. And what distinguishes structural violence from the violence of natural disasters is that the former results from the deliberate actions of social agents.

Structural Violence and the State

Now the connection between structural violence and the state. It seems difficult to link the state with poverty because the latter’s continued use (as something to be removed or overcome) in projects of charity and aid to the unfortunate has desensitised us to “the deformed ethics of statecraft that tolerates and condones such cruelty”. For such cruelty is “exercised without intention through practices ranging from corruption and modes of literacy and writing to governmental practices [:]… a matter of routine administration, a problem largely uncommented upon in the press or in parliament, and nameable only through banalities on the occasions when it is mentioned”.

The low position of India in terms of human development could be explained in a number of ways. Perhaps the state in India has never had the resources necessary to eradicate poverty. Perhaps, and this is along more classically Marxist lines, the state is a tool for the perpetuation of inequalities, an executive committee of the bourgeoisie and the emerging classes that are tied to the bourgeois order. Or perhaps we have never been postcolonial: poverty has not been eradicated because the state has continued to function much as the colonial one did, and neoliberalism has succeeded only in bringing to India new forms of empire and neocolonialism.

But none of these are satisfactory. It is easy, of course, to blame the bureaucrats, and politicians. But it remains a fact that many hardworking bureaucrats are frustrated in their efforts by the ineffectiveness of the bureaucratic structure. And this is why the argument is being made that the nobility of the programmes and the sincerity of the officials do not translate into result because of the procedures of bureaucracy.

“There is a very specific modality of uncaring operating here that I will further specify. Uncaring indicates not a psychological state of government employees but a constitutive modality of the state. One could hardly accuse the state of inaction toward the poor: it would be difficult to imagine a more extensive set of development interventions in the fields of nutrition, health, education, housing, employment, sanitation, and so forth than those found in India. The Indian state probably outdoes any other poor nation-state in the number and range of its benevolent interventions.”

This position is different from two other commonly employed explanations for development outcomes that adversely affect the poor. I am not arguing that the well intentioned development and assistance programmes flounder in their implementation. I am also not arguing, and this is related to the first, that the improvement of efficiency in delivery of services would eliminate structural violence. Certainly, there is room for improvement here but the achievement of total efficiency would not mean the eradication of violence. Finally, I am arguing against “an anthropology of abjectness” which conceives of targets or beneficiaries of government schemes as passive or docile victims. They are not and they do not represent themselves as such.

What is Enlightenment? by Michel Foucault — A Summary

Michel Foucault, “What is Enlightenment?” in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow, trans. Catherine Porter (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), 32–50.

Originally presented as a lecture sometime in 1983 during Foucault’s stay at the University of Berkeley, California (Alain Beauliueu, “The Foucault Archives at Berkeley,” Foucault Studies, no. 10 (2010), 149–50).

Additional texts having to do with material and themes from this essay are the 1978 lecture “What is Critique?” and two lectures from his 1982–83 course at the College de France.


What is this thing we call the Enlightenment? It is something that has been of tremendous importance to us. We could even say that much of what we are and how we see ourselves today has been determined by the Enlightenment. The question of what Enlightenment is is a question that modern philosophy — from Kant to Hegel to Nietzsche to Weber to Horkheimer to Habermas — has always been confronted with and troubled by, so much so that we might answer the question, what is modern philosophy?, by saying that it is the philosophy that is trying to answer the question, what is Enlightenment?

[Comment: Foucault will discuss Immanuel Kant’s minor, but important, essay, “Was ist Aufklärung?” (What is Enlightenment?). Obviously, it is assumed that you, the reader, is familiar with it. There are about a dozen translations that you can find online. For an early translation, look at John Richardson‘s (1798). For something more recent, see Mary J. Gregor‘s (1996). If you know a little German and want to read the essay along with the original, check out this awesome page (details about translation available there).

There is also the context in which Kant wrote that particular essay. This is something that you must be aware of for which check out James Schmidt’s “The Question of the Enlightenment”. For the answers given by Moses Mendelssohn and Kant, check out his “What Enlightenment Was”. For a brief discussion of modern interpretations of Kant’s essay, see his “Misunderstanding the Question”.]

Let us look at and linger on an answer given 200 years ago.

  1. “With the two texts published” — those of Kant and Mendelssohn (see comment above) — “in the Berlinische Monatschrift, the German Aufklärung and the Jewish Haskala recognize that they belong to the same history; they are seeking to identify the common processes from which they stem. And it is perhaps a way of announcing the acceptance of a common destiny — we now know to what drama that was to lead.”
  2. With Kant, philosophical thought comes to acquire a new approach to understanding itself and its present. Hitherto, such reflection had either seen the present as a distinct era separated from the others through a dramatic event, or as the presaged in some future era or event, or indeed as a point of transition to a new world. In Kant, the the present is neither of these. The present, as represented by the Aufklärung is an Ausgang, i.e. an exit or a way out.
  3. There are further considerations that Kant’s text leads to.
    • First, this exit is from the status of a self-incurred immaturity as “when a book takes the place of our understanding, when a spiritual director takes the place of our conscience, when a doctor decides for us what our diet is to be.” Immaturity is simply the surrender of our reason to the authority of others.
    • Second, this exit is not only an ongoing process but a task and an obligation in that man will cast off this immaturity only through a change that he himself brings about. Sapere aude! Man must dare, and have the audacity, to know.

Dimidium facti, qui coepit, habet; sapere aude,   
incipe. Viuendi qui recte prorogat horam,
rusticus expectat dum defluat amnis; at ille
labitur et labetur in omne uolubilis aeuum.

Horace, Epistles, Book II, Epistle II, Lines 40–43.

Who’s started has half finished: dare to be wise: begin!
He who postpones the time for right-living resembles
The rustic who’s waiting until the river’s passed by:
Yet it glides on, and will roll on, gliding forever.

(Trans. A. S. Kline.)

    • Third, it seems that the whole of mankind, Menschheit, is caught up in this process that is the Aufklärung. But what is this process? What is this change that is taking place? Kant distinguishes between the private and public uses of reason. The former relates to man’s role as a “cog in a machine”, as a soldier, priest, civil servant, tax paying citizen, etc. In this private role, he must obey and restrict his use of reason. But in so far as he is a reasonable being, a rational being as such and not merely a cog in some machine, and in so far as he reasons for reasoning’s sake, in this public role, man must freely and publicly exercise his reason. Enlightenment requires not merely that individuals cast off their immaturity but that man as a rational species, mankind, fully exercise the universal, free, and public uses of reason.
    • Fourth, if Enlightenment requires this, ensuring the free use of reason becomes a political problem: “how the audacity to know can be exercised in broad daylight, while individuals are obeying as scrupulously as possible?” Kant concludes by proposing a contract to Frederick the Great a contract of rational despotism that allows the free use of reason.

It is in this Enlightenment when humanity is going to put its own reason to use, without subjecting itself to any authority that critique is necessary so that the legitimate use of reason may be clearly defined in its principles and so that its autonomy can be assured. This is the connection between this essay and his three Critiques.

What Kant is doing in this text is reflecting on the contemporary status of his own enterprise, i.e. philosophy. Of course, this is not the first time that a philosopher has reflected on the purpose of philosophy but it is the first time that such reflection has emphasised the importance of the specific moment in which one is writing, the importance of that moment as “difference in history and as motive for a particular philosophical task”.

And by looking at the novelty of Kant’s intervention as a critical reflection on the present, the outline of what one might call the “attitude of modernity” might become visible.


Modernity is not an epoch, i.e. a period in our history. It is an attitude, an ethos, by which is meant simply “a mode of relating to contemporary reality; a voluntary choice made by certain people; in the end, a way of thinking and feeling; a way, too, of acting and behaving that at one and the same time marks a relation of belonging and presents itself as a task”. Perhaps, Charles Baudelaire would help us characterise this attitude.

  • Modernity is a consciousness of the discontinuity of the present — or put differently, a consciousness of its ephemeral quality. But it is not mere consciousness. Rather, modernity is above all that attitude which summons the attempt to capture something eternal within that which is ephemeral. In yet other words, modernity lies in the attitude that attempts to “heroise” the present, to grasp the importance or necessity of the features of the present, to nullify those that despise the present.
  • But this heroisation is ironical in that the present is not invested with a sanctity that then works towards its perpetuation. Rather, the heroisation of the present, this investment in the present, is directed by the urge to imagine it other than it is, and to transform it not by destroying but by understanding it. It is not in the “flaneur, the idle, strolling spectator, [who] is satisfied to keep his eyes open, to pay attention and to build up a storehouse of memories” that modernity finds expression. It in in that man who “makes it his business to extract from fashion [i.e. the present] whatever element it may contain of poetry within history”.

And so, walking or quickening his pace, he goes his way, for ever in search. In search of what? We may rest assured that this man, such as I have described him, this solitary mortal endowed with an active imagination, always roaming the great desert of men, has a nobler aim than that of the pure idler, a more general aim, other than the fleeting pleasure of circumstance. He is looking for that indefinable something we may be allowed to call ‘modernity’, for want of a better term to express the idea in question. The aim for him is to extract from fashion the poetry that resides in its historical envelope, to distil the eternal from the transitory.

Charles Baudelaire, “Modernity”, in The Painter of Modern Life, trans. P. E. Charvet.

  • Modernity is also a relation that one establishes not just with the present but also with oneself. It entails the elaboration of a complex and difficult relation with oneself in which man seeks not to “discover  himself, his secrets and his hidden truth [but] tries to invent himself; it entails, in Baudelaire’s term, dandysme. Such a modernity “does not ‘liberate man in his own being’; it compels him to face the task of producing himself.
  • Finally, this heroisation cannot happen in society or in the body politic but in art.

Obviously, these remarks are not meant as an exhaustive summary of the Enlightenment or of the attitude of modernity.

What I am trying to point out is that a certain type of philosophical reflection — one that “problematises man’s relation to the present, man’s
historical mode of being, and the constitution of the self as an autonomous subject”— has been bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment and it is the reactivation of this type of reflection or interrogation or attitude — “a philosophical ethos that could be described as a permanent critique of our historical era” — which might connect us with the Enlightenment.

This particular attitude (what has also been called an ethos) may be described in the following manner.

A. Negatively

1. We do not have to be “for” or “against” the Enlightenment, and if this authoritarian and simplistic choice is presented, we must refuse to answer. We must not be blackmailed into taking a side. We must realise that for good or worse, and to a larger or smaller extent, we are inescapably products of the Enlightenment. We must proceed our analysis of ourselves in this light with the aim of determining the what is no longer indispensable for the constitution of ourselves (us who are products of the Enlightenment) as autonomous subjects.

2. The interest here is in a certain form of philosophising, “mode of reflective relation to the present”, which has been already described as a permanent critique of ourselves. This aspect of the Enlightenment must not be confused or compared with humanism which is a set of themes — marshalled from the 17th to the 20th century by such disparate parties as Christians, critics of Christianity, Marxists, Existentialists, National Socialists and Stalinists! — that is way too flexible, i.e. it admits of too much, to be an axis for reflection. What remains stable in humanism is the invocation of certain conceptions of man whether borrowed from religion, science, or politics. And in fact it is here that the Enlightenment and humanism are at odds with one another, in tension.

“In any case, I think that, just as we must free ourselves from the intellectual blackmail of ‘being for or against the Enlightenment’, we must escape from the historical and moral confusionism that mixes the theme of humanism with the question of the Enlightenment”

B. Positively

1. This philosophical ethos is a limit attitude. To move beyond the outside-inside, against-for alternative requires us to tarry at the frontiers; it requires that we ask not what what necessary, obligatory or universal categories summon our allegiance to an either-or choice but to probe the possibilities of singular, contingent, and arbitrary events. “The point, in brief, is to transform the critique conducted in the form of necessary limitation into a practical critique that takes the form of a possible transgression.”

This means that critique will not attempt to elucidate or discover universal formal structures but probe historically and attentively into the events that have made us who we are.

[Comment: I hope I will be forgiven for not summarising, for directly quoting, most of what follows. It is too difficult to summarise without trivialising Foucault’s point. See, this essay I am summarising, trying to at least, was published during his last months of his life and preceding his death are volumes of provocative, difficult, and ground breaking works. Many of his ideas from these earlier works appear in this essay. Consider the terms “archaeological” and “genealogical”; they have such critical import that without an adequate explanation, and that explanation will be a rather long one, of how Foucault uses those terms, it would be impossible to convey the sense of the statements. For “archaeology”, one could look up his book The Order of Things. Further problems exist, for I can’t possibly talk about what “archaeology” is without talking in the same breath of “discourse” (for which see The Archaeology of Knowledge), and of “episteme” (for which, again, The Order of Things). A subtler mind and an abler pen could perhaps pull this off with the required brevity and with sufficient gravitas. I am unfortunately not that person. This comment is therefore an invitation for the not so advanced reader to further explore Foucault if she so wishes. She is not required to but if she wishes to grasp the consequence of  what follows, she would have to. From my own experience with these texts, I can only say that the road is long and hard but ultimately rewarding.]

“In that sense, this criticism is not transcendental, and its goal is not that of making a metaphysics possible: it is genealogical in its design and archaeological in its method. Archaeological — and not transcendental — in the sense that it will not seek to identify the universal structures of all knowledge or of all possible moral action, but will seek to treat the instances of discourse that articulate what we think, say, and do as so many historical events. And this critique will be genealogical in the sense that it will not deduce from the form of what we are what it is impossible for us to do and to know; but it will separate out, from the contingency that has made us what we are, the possibility of no longer being, doing, or thinking what we are, do, or think. It is not seeking to make possible a metaphysics that has finally become a science; it is seeking to give new impetus, as far and wide as possible, to the undefined work of freedom”.

2. This ethos must be experimental. It must “open up a realm of historical inquiry and, on the other, put itself to the test of reality, of contemporary reality, both to grasp the points where change is possible and desirable, and to determine the precise form this change should take”. Such experiments will not be global or radical for we are well aware of the dangers that await such reforms, but they will be specific, partial, local, and individual. “I shall thus characterize the philosophical ethos appropriate to the critical ontology of ourselves as a historico-practical test of the limits that we may go beyond, and thus as work carried out by ourselves upon ourselves as free beings.”

3. But “if we limit ourselves to this type of always partial and local inquiry or test, do we not run the risk of letting ourselves be determined by more general structures of which we may well not be conscious, and over which we may have no control?”

The work that will be performed by ourselves on ourselves can never hope to achieve completeness or aspire towards a definite knowledge. And we will always be limited in what we can do, in what work we can accomplish. But this does not mean that no work can be done without it being completely arbitrary and contingent. The work in question has its generality, its systematicity, its homogeneity, and its stakes.

Its Stakes. “What is at stake then is this: How can the growth of capabilities be disconnected from the intensification of power relations?”

[Comment: If you are wondering what the hell this question is supposed to mean, I sympathise. By capabilities is meant the technologies, i.e. those devices, sciences, instruments, institutions, knowledge, etc., which grew in the the modern West and which led to the the arrival and exercise of a new form of power that, in Foucault’s words, “applies itself to immediate everyday life which categorizes the individual, marks him by his own individuality, attaches him to his own identity, imposes a law of truth on him which he must recognize and which others have to recognize in him. It is a form of power which makes individuals subjects”. Heady stuff, I know. For “capabilities”, you can start with the essay/lecture “Governmentality”, and for “power”, you can start with “The Subject and Power”.]

Homogeneity. The homogeneity in such work is in terms of what men do — “the forms of rationality that organize their ways of doing things” — and the way they do it — “the freedom with which they act”.

Systematicity. The work is performed on three axes: in relation to things (knowledge), to others (power), and to oneself (ethics). The work seeks to answer the questions: “How are we constituted as subjects of our own knowledge? How are we constituted as subjects who exercise or submit to power relations? How are we constituted as moral subjects of our own actions?”

[Comment: On the idea of work on the relation to oneself — i.e. “work carried out by ourselves upon ourselves as free beings” — see his later work. I would recommend starting with Part 2 of The Care of the Self: Volume 3 of The History of Sexuality [for this purpose, ignore the fact that the book is called a history of sexuality]. If you want more, check out his 1981–82 course published as The Hermeneutics of the Subject.]

Generality. “At least at the level of the Western societies from which we derive, [the historico-critical investigations] have their generality, in the sense that they have continued to recur up to our time ….. [And] what must be grasped is the the extent to which what we know of it, the forms of power that are exercised in it, and the experience that we have in it of ourselves constitute nothing but determined historical figures, through a certain form of problematization that defines objects, rules of action, modes of relation to oneself.”

“The critical ontology of ourselves has to be considered not, certainly, as a theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating; it has to be conceived as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them.”

The Subject and Power by Michel Foucault — A Summary

Michel Foucault, “The Subject and Power,” Critical Inquiry 8, no. 4 (1982): 777–95.

Also published as an Afterword to Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, eds. Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983) 

[This Introduction has been significantly amended as of 20 July 2019. The previous version may be accessed here.]

“My objective, instead, has been to create a history of the different modes [of objectification] by which, in our culture, human beings are made subjects.” p. 777.

If this statement is accessible to you, you can skip this rather protracted introduction (to the first section of the article). If not, do not proceed without first reading this.

This introduction is aimed at clarifying the meaning and importance of the word “subject” and its derivatives — especially subjectivation (or sometimes, subjectification). Lack of clarity on this would render the article inaccessible. The word “subject” has many meanings. (Check out this extensive list of meanings recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary.) When Foucault talks about the subject, or about subjectivation, he means to convey two different notions simultaneously.

The first alludes to a well known philosophical tradition in which the subject as the center of experience is of central import. To explain this very crudely, I must first explain what is known as the subject-object dichotomy in philosophy. A subject is conscious and an object is unconscious. The subject experiences, feels, or thinks (or, in other words, is conscious). To use jargon, subjects possess subjectivity. Objects, on the other hand, do not. Rather, they are experienced, felt, thought about. Put another way, subjects perceive and objects are perceived. Put yet another way, subjects are active, i.e., they have agency, while objects are passive. (This is precisely the grammatical distinction made between active and passive voice!) The subject in this sense — the subject as the active, perceiving thing possessing agency — is the first notion that Foucault is referencing when he talks of the subject. The origin of this connotation (and also in the senses in which it is understood in grammar and logic) goes back to (the Latin translation of) a Greek term coined by Aristotle. This notion of the subject (otherwise called the “self”) has been particularly influential in modern philosophy. Particularly, the idea that this subject is free and untethered has informed much of modern liberal thought. But I digress.

To get at the second aspect, we will have to complicate the picture a little more. We can start thus: we, humans, as conscious beings, are subjects. But how do we become subjects? If I have certain political opinions, behave a certain way, have certain preferences of food, etc. how do I come to have those opinions, behaviour, and preferences. A whole host of agencies/forces have a bearing on me: the family, the church, the state, the economy, even myself. This is the second notion that Foucault is bringing into the word “subject”. Grammatically, it would be used as a verb. This is the meaning conveyed by such phrases as “subject to the authority of the king”. This is the sense in which people are “subjects” in monarchies — in that they are subjected to the authority of the king — only that the authority of the king is replaced in contemporary times by a whole host of agencies which are listed above. The origin of this connotation is, the Oxford Dictionary informs us, Middle English. The implication is that we we do not automatically and autonomously become subjects in sense outlined above. We are subjects because we are subjected.

Now, the complication. At the same time that I am a subject in this second sense, from the perspective of the family or the church or the state or even a part of myself (say my rational, true, authentic self — that self which wants me to be the best I can be), I am an object that needs to be moulded into a certain shape, having certain opinions, behaviour and preferences. So that when I try to alter my behaviour to become a better me, I am treating myself as an object. When the church uses its doctrines to make me a truer Christian, it is treating me as an object. And when the science of medicine does research on me, it is treating me as an object.

When Foucault talks of the subject, he means all of these and when he talks of subjectivation, he means the process by which we are (and are made) subjects in all these senses.

To wrap up this introduction, let us consider the sentence that I opened with: “My (i) objective, instead, has been to create a history of the different modes [of (ii) objectification] by which, in our culture, human beings are made (iii) subjects.” p. 777.

(i) Objective means purpose in this context. That’s obvious.

(ii) By modes of objectification, Foucault is referring to the ways in which my agency, self-knowledge, or individuality of the subject i.e. my subjectivity,  is determined or controlled by family, the state, the church, or even by the subjects themselves. In short, he means the ways in which I am made an object.

(iii) But at the end of all this, human beings still remain subjects in the sense that they have agency and also in the sense that this agency will be determined by other forces (by subjection).

Why Study Power?
The Question of the Subject

My goal has been to analyse the ways in which human beings are made subjects. There have been three modes of objectification which have made this transformation possible.

First, there are the sciences such as grammar, philology and linguistics, economics, and biology whose classificatory endeavours have objectified the speaking subject, the labourer and the very living being. Second, there are dividing practices which have objectified subjects by dividing them within or from others. Consider the division between the mad and the sane, the sick and the healthy, the criminals and the “good boys”. Third, there is the process of subjectification whereby humans turn their very selves into subjects. Consider the identification of people with certain forms of sexuality.

The general theme of my work thus has been “the question of the subject”. But I have had to “study power” because the existing legal model (the question of what legitimises power) and institutional model (the question of what is the state) of understanding power were insufficient to account for the objectification of the subject.

The dimensions of power have to be expanded.

It is important in this regard to start from forms of resistance against power and analyse power relations through the “antagonism of strategies”. “For example, to find out what our society means by sanity, perhaps we should investigate what is happening in the field of insanity. And what we mean by legality in the field of illegality.”

“As a starting point, let us take a series of oppositions which have developed over the last few years: opposition to the power of men over women, of parents over children, of psychiatry over the mentally ill, of medicine over the population, of administration over the ways people live.”

These struggles cut across state boundaries. They are against the effects of power as such as opposed to the exercise of power. They are immediate struggles — both temporally and spatially. They assert individuality. They are opposed to the privileges of knowledge and forms of imposition on people. They ask “Who are we?”, i.e., they are directed towards determining ones own subjectivity.

“To sum up, the main objective of these struggles is … to attack a technique, a form of power. This form of power applies itself to immediate everyday life which categorizes the individual, marks him by his own individuality, attaches him to his own identity, imposes a law of truth on him which he must recognize and which others have to recognize in him. It is a form of power which makes individuals subjects. There are two meanings of the word ‘subject’: subject to someone else by control and dependence; and tied to his own identity by a conscience or self-knowledge. Both meanings suggest a form of power which subjugates and makes subject to.

“Generally, it can be said that there are three types of struggles: either against forms of domination; against forms of exploitation which separate individuals from what they produce; or … against subjection, against forms of subjectivity and submission.” While the struggles against forms of subjection have become salient, struggles against domination and exploitation have not disappeared.

They reason why this form of struggle has become salient in this century is the rise of the modern state. The state totalises its power in the sense that it seeks to look after the totality of its subjects, i.e., the population. [For more on this aspect, see his essay “Governmentality”, summarised here.] But it also individualises.

Never, I think, in the history of human societies ... has there been such a tricky combination in the same political structures of individualization techniques and of totalization procedures.

In saying that the state power is individualising, I mean that the state exercises a form of power which is seeks the production of truth of the individual. This is a form of power that is analogous to the role played by pastors in Christianity, and hence may be called pastoral power. Pastoral power, in its religious context, aims at salvation, is sacrificial, is oriented towards the individual, and demands that the individual reveal his conscience and his innermost secrets. The modern state exercises secularised versions of these aspects of pastoral power. The welfare state with its commitment to the health and well-being of its citizens is engaged in ensuring worldly salvation. The surveillance state with its hunger for data on its citizens is analogous to the Catholic priest who has access to the innermost details of those who come to confession.

The conclusion would be that the political, ethical, social, philosophical problem of our days is not to try to liberate the individual from the state and from the state's institutions but to liberate us both from the state and from the type of individualization which is linked to the state. We have to promote new forms of subjectivity through the refusal of this kind of individuality which has been imposed on us for several centuries.

How Is Power Exercised?

Analyses of the question of the “how” of power are generally limited to inventorying its manifestations. But are not these manifestations or effects of power linked to its origin and basic nature?

How is power exercised?

The “how” I have in mind is not the question of how power manifests itself but the question of the means by which power is exercised. Power implies an objective capacity to exert force over things and the ability to modify, use, consume, or destroy them. Power also implies relationships between individuals or groups in that in any discussion of the mechanisms of power, we suppose that certain persons exercise power over others.

There are relationships of communication, i.e., transmission of information by means of a language, a system of signs, or any other symbolic medium, through which persons act upon others. However, if the objectives or consequences of such relationships have results in the realm of power, it is only incidental. The point is that objective capacities, power relations, and relationships are not to be confused for one another. At the same time, they are not to be treated as three separate domains. In fact, they “always overlap one another, support one another reciprocally, and use each other mutually as means to an end”.

The application of objective capacities in their most elementary forms implies relationships of communication (whether in the form of previously acquired information or of shared work); it is tied also to power relations (whether they consist of obligatory tasks, of gestures imposed by tradition or apprenticeship, of subdivisions and the more or less obligatory distribution of labor). Relationships of communication imply finalized activities (even if only the correct putting into operation of elements of meaning) and, by virtue of modifying the field of information between partners, produce effects of power.

Across different societies, the coordination or relation between these three types of relationships is neither uniform nor constant. Rather, there are diverse specific models.

“But there are also ‘blocks’ in which the adjustment of abilities, the resources of communication, and power relations constitute regulated and concerted systems.” Consider an educational institution whose constituents constitute a block of capacity–communication–power. “The activity which ensures apprenticeship and the acquisition of aptitudes or types of behavior is developed there by means of a whole ensemble of regulated communications (lessons, questions and answers, orders, exhortations, coded signs of obedience, differentiation marks of the ‘value’ of each person and of the levels of knowledge) and by the means of a whole series of power processes (enclosure, surveillance, reward and punishment, the pyramidal hierarchy).”

Blocks like this constitute a ‘discipline’. Disciplines provide a view into the ways in which the constituents components — the capacity–communication–power triad — are welded together as well as the varied ways in which their interrelationships are articulated.

“To approach the theme of power by an analysis of ‘how’ is therefore to introduce several critical shifts in relation to the supposition of a fundamental power. It is to give oneself as the object of analysis power relations and not power itself.”

What constitutes the specific nature of power?

“[S]omething called Power, with or without a capital letter, which is assumed to exist universally in a concentrated or diffused form, does not exist. Power exists only when it is put into action.” That’s to say that power exists as a relation. What defines this relationship is that it is a mode of action which acts only indirectly; it is an action upon an action, on existing actions or on those which may arise in the present or the future. This requires that the one over whom power is exercised be thoroughly recognized and maintained to the very end as a person who acts, i.e., as a subject.

In itself the exercise of power is not violence; nor is it a consent which, implicitly, is renewable. It is a total structure of actions brought to bear upon possible actions; it incites, it induces, it seduces, it makes easier or more difficult; in the extreme it constrains or forbids absolutely; it is nevertheless always a way of acting upon an acting subject or acting subjects by virtue of their acting or being capable of action. A set of actions upon other actions.

The specificities of power relations can be better understood through the word conduct which means both (as a verb) to lead others and (as a noun) a way of behaving. The question of power is a question of government. Government in this sense refers not only to political structures or to the management of states but also the structuring of the possible field of action of others.

To understand power in this way — as a mode of action upon the actions of others, or as the government of men by other men — is to presuppose free subjects over whom power is exercised, and that too, only insofar as they are free subjects.

[S]lavery is not a power relationship when man is in chains. (In this case it is a question of a physical relationship of constraint.) Consequently, there is no face-to-face confrontation of power and freedom, which are mutually exclusive (freedom disappears everywhere power is exercised), but a much more complicated interplay. In this game freedom may well appear as the condition for the exercise of power (at the same time its precondition, since freedom must exist for power to be exerted, and also its permanent support, since without the possibility of recalcitrance, power would be equivalent to a physical determination).

“At the very heart of the power relationship, and constantly provoking it, are the recalcitrance of the will and the intransigence of freedom. Rather than speaking of an essential freedom [then], it would be better to speak of an ‘agonism’ — of a relationship which is at the same time reciprocal incitation and struggle, … [of] a permanent provocation.”

How is one to analyze the power relationship?

[This section has extracts only.]

“One can analyze such relationships … by focusing on carefully defined institutions. [Institutions] constitute a privileged point of observation, diversified, concentrated, put in order, and carried through to the highest point of their efficacy. It is here that, as a first approximation, one might expect to see the appearance of the form and logic of their elementary mechanisms.

“The analysis of power relations demands that a certain number of points be established concretely:

  1. The system of differentiations which permits one to act upon the actions of others: differentiations determined by the law or by traditions of status and privilege; economic differences …
  2. The types of objectives pursued by those who act upon the actions of others: the maintenance of privileges, the accumulation of profits …
  3. The means of bringing power relations into being: according to whether power is exercised by the threat of arms, by the effects of the word, by means of economic disparities, by more or less complex means of control …
  4. Forms of institutionalization: these may mix traditional predispositions, legal structures, phenomena relating to custom or to fashion (e.g., a family); they can also take the form of an apparatus closed in upon itself, with its specific loci, its own regulations, its hierarchical structures which are carefully defined, a relative autonomy in its functioning (e.g., military institutions); they can also form very complex systems endowed with multiple apparatuses (e.g., the state) …
  5. The degrees of rationalization: [to what extent the play of] power relations as action in a field of possibilities [are] more or less elaborate in relation to the effectiveness of the instruments and the certainty of the results …

“[Thus,] one sees why the analysis of power relations within a society cannot be reduced to the study of a series of institutions, not even to the study of all those institutions which would merit the name ‘political’. Power relations are rooted in the system of social networks. … In referring here to the restricted sense of the word ‘government’, one could say that power relations have been progressively governmentalized, that is to say, elaborated, rationalized, and centralized in the form of, or under the auspices of, state institutions.

Relations of power and relations of strategy

“The word ‘strategy’ is currently employed in three ways. First, to designate the means employed to attain a certain end… . Second, to designate the manner in which a partner in a certain game acts with regard to what he thinks should be the action of the others and what he considers the others think to be his own… . Third, to designate the procedures used in a situation of confrontation to deprive the opponent of his means of combat and to reduce him to giving up the struggle… . These three meanings come together in situations of confrontation … where the objective is to act upon an adversary in such a manner as to render the struggle impossible for him. … But it must be borne in mind that this is a very special type of situation and that there are others in which the distinctions between the different senses of the word ‘strategy’ must be maintained.” (emphasis added)

There can be no relationship of power without the potential for a strategy of struggle. This is because, to quote again what has been said before, “at the very heart of the power relationship, and constantly provoking it, are the recalcitrance of the will and the intransigence of freedom”. A capacity for struggle (for freedom) is the precondition of power.

This relationship of confrontation between power and struggle is an unstable one and if it attains stability, it would mean that one of the two has won out. When the confrontation is stabilised, the power relationship becomes at once its (the confrontation’s) target, fulfillment, and suspension while the strategy of struggle becomes a limit, a frontier for the relationship of power.

Which is to say that every strategy of confrontation dreams of becoming a relationship of power, and every relationship of power leans toward the idea that, if it follows its own line of development and comes up against direct confrontation, it may become the winning strategy.

Governmentality by Michel Foucault — A Summary


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.

‘Government’ [does] not refer only to political structures or to the management of states; rather, it designate[s] the way in which the conduct of individuals or of groups might be directed. …To govern, in this sense, is to structure the possible field of action of others. [Michel Foucault, “The Subject and Power”, p. 790.]

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.[1] 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.[3]

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.[3]

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.]

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 deals with “discipline” at length in the three previous lectures especially in its relation with/difference from sovereignty and security which are the thrust areas of that year’s course. For the purpose of this summary, it will suffice to note that the term refers to methods and mechanisms of control and regulation. Consider the ways in which your school disciplines its students. This holds importance for Foucault in so far as apparatuses of the state — the police, the military, the market — are disciplinary.]

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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. 

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.”


[1] 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)

[2] 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.

[3] 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.