The Birth of Biopolitics, but where is the “bios” and the “politics”?

Birth BiopoliticsIn the “Birth of Biopolitics,” Foucault tries to compose a history of certain practices, political, social, economic, legal, by avoiding the universals such as “state, civil society,” etc… to explain the present as it is experienced in the middle of a neoliberal reordering.
But what is surprising is that he never mentions the term “Biopolitics” or when he does is very superficially used as if it was a way to label his project. He argues that his methodology is to start by saying -as he did while writing the history of maddens- “let’s say there is no madness and never has been and lets start from there.” p. 3 In writing this history he is recurring to his method of studying “practices” and “ways of doing things”  to understand how the economic thinking that emerged from the 18th Century onwards has become intertwined with political economy, ideologies such as liberalism and the idea of the state whether in the French, German or English cases. p. 318 I studied the material overall but decided to focus on chapters 9 – 12 and summary. In these chapters, Foucault attempts to trace the emergence of what he calls “homo oeconomicous” as the predominant figure (as an individual) but more importantly as a way of thinking about society. He discusses in Chapter 9, the differences between the German economic politics of the postwar years and the American Neoliberalism that was taking off at the time of writing as it permeates all spheres of human existence: in the form of “human capital” he argues that genetics and calculation (as opposed to old paradigms like “moderation” or “wisdom”) had become a natural way of thinking in a society that organizes most -if not all- of its organizational practices and activities; this occurs right down to intimate and personal aspects such as finding a partner for reproduction, technique and rationality behind child bearing practices and similar experiences.

He is fond of using this paradigm (“human capital”) to explain several issues all the way from the marketization of affects, to the birth of offices and agencies in the North American case that operate in a semi punitive way vis-a-vis the state by encouraging it to govern less or to govern following policies that work and are specific to the realm of economics. In Chapter 10, he performs an analysis a la Hirschman where we studies -using economic theories- the failure of imposing market tools and assumptions in cases like drug control and other patterns of consumption (from “the family and birth rate to delinquency to penal policy” p. 323). And later in Chapter 11, he traces a long genealogy of “homo oeconomicous” in opposition to the figure of the “homo juridicus” as two operative agents whose interests and modus operandi differed considerably, mainly because the first was one that functioned under a logic with no need for a sovereign; whereas the second was conceived as a contractual man, one ruled by the word of the legal system and restricted in many ways. In a very clear passage, he argues contra the economization of life and government “One must govern with economists, one must govern align side with economists, one must govern by listening to economists, but economics must not be and there is non question that it can be the governmental rationality itself.” He goes on to describe in the following chapter, (chapter 12) how there are several rationalities of government. These historical readings are presented somehow uncritically, specifically where he discusses Smith’s analysis of the invisible hand as a summary rather than inquiring what does this mean for the present. Or perhaps the task of thinking about what these currents of thought and practices signify for the present are left out or explore somewhere else. What is a constant in his thought is to conceive of different rationalities of government and to study when and where these crystallized as political realities or entered into different relations with emerging or declining ones. Some of these rationalities are: “the rationality of the government, the rationality of the governed, the rationality of individual interests, the rationality of truth (History), this last one becoming a signifier for Marxism” 313. He argues -or rather than arguing- he restates Smith’s ideas (in order to advances his reading overall) about how private interests work in harmony towards a collective goal and how by pursuing one’s interests with full force the whole of the social body is improved.
In his summary, he rightly concludes that instead of talking about biopolitics he merely described the origins of a way of thinking -Liberalism- that is independent of the notions such as “La raison de Etat,” or civil society. He concludes by thinking about Liberalism as a way of doing things whose main goal is the “less governing,” the “governing less” and at times it (Liberalism) asks itself “why should one govern?” p. 319. And he seems to agree with the definition of Liberalism as “not so much a doctrine but a form of critical reflection or governmental practice.” 321. That allows him to locate several and very distinct -sometimes contradictory- rationalities of government that have taken place in history as in a way following basic Liberal lessons. Paradigms of political government as different as the German Market Social Economy and American Neoliberalism -very different in many regards- share basic liberal views and arouse from similar historical and economic contexts. He closes the summary by stating that next course will be dedicated to actual biopolitics!

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