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Biopolitics -- Finding the Pareto Optimum over the production of life

This post examines the lectures "Security, Territory, Population" by French philosopher Michel Foucault during his time at the College De France 1977-1978. Detailed in it is an overview of Foucault's theory of biopolitics -- a new form of power that has emerged since the modern era. What this power consists of, and how this power controls and regulates human life in the in the post-modern era along with the challenges biopower poses in State's that don't necessarily follow the liberal political and moral philosophical modality of organization.



What is Biopolitics?

Biopolitics according to Foucault is a new type of power that has emerged since the modern era. Principally, it is about the production, control, and regulation of human life. I will talk about three major aspects of biopolitical power that Foucault posits in this post:






1.) The shift from Sovereign to Government and the erosion of pastoral power

2.) The change in economic organization from Mercantilism to Liberalism

3.) Statistics


1.) The shift from Sovereign to Government

Critical to Foucault's theory of biopolitics is the shift from Sovereign to Government. Foucault argues that during the Middle Ages and the age of the Roman Empire, there was a constant presence of the Sovereign ie. the King, Prince, Queen and the Sovereign's unitary and absolute power. He draws upon Machiavelli heavily pulling upon Machiavelli's work "The Prince" to demonstrate that the Sovereign's ultimate goal was to hold on to his or her power at whatever expense necessary. Inherent in this was the erosion of Pastoral power, that is the power that the church and its institutions wielded over its subjects to regulate their life. Pastoral power took into account every single individual and looked out for them as such and if one individual went astray, it was the duty of the pastor to bring that person back at whatever cost -- even if it meant leaving the rest of the flock behind. On the contrary, the Sovereign had no pastoral power. The sovereign wasn't interested in the individual life of each of his or her subjects, all that the sovereign cared about was holding on to their absolute power at whatever cost. But several challenges started to emerge: the growth of the town, population, and circulation of people and goods at exponential rates. The sovereign could no longer control and discipline his or her population and territory due to these factors. This leads directly into the next point -- we witness almost naturally due to these factors a shift in economic organization from Mercantilism to liberalism and the birth of government.


2.) The change in economic organization from Mercantilism to Liberalism

Given the rise and preeminence of the town over the rural, population growth, and an exponential increase in the circulation of people and goods that was occurring at the time, there was a natural shift from Mercantilism to Liberalism. The Sovereign at this point up until about the mid 18th century could no longer hoard goods, control the price of grain, utilize tariffs to ensure that his or her own territory produces what they need by stifling imports due to high duties levied. There were simply too many factors occurring all at once. Too many people entering into and leaving the town, traveling across borders and different territories. Circulation was too quick to control the population. Hence, we witness the natural shift to liberalism and a liberal mode of economic and political organization that entails a policy of "let things flow". It wasn't possible to hoard, to control, and to regulate the production of goods and people anymore as society and the milieu had begun to grow too large. At this point, we start to see the appearance of free trade occur. It wasn't crucial anymore to keep the price of grain or a good at low levels to ensure that the town wouldn't revolt against the Sovereign (which was always the Sovereign's principal fear). Now, prices were allowed to rise and fall under free trade and at this point it became the norm if some people went hungry or couldn't afford this or that and therefore, to let them die. This is because it would be better to let those few individuals (outliers) die and ensure the rest of the population is maintained under the system of liberalism (let things flow) rather than face the risk of the whole town revolting and usurping the power of the sovereign. At this point to, we see the emergence of government begin to take hold and this is where biopower comes into play.


3.) Statistics

With the shift from mercantilism to liberalism, and the shift from the Sovereign to government, statistics become essential. The Sovereign could no longer control individually each and every one of his or her subjects, the towns, the country side etc. Society simply became too complex. Hence, we see the emergence of statistics that begin to play an essential role in the organization of society. As power began to shift away from the Sovereign (the King, Queen, Prince, etc.) and to the government as we start to see the formation of what is the modern day nation state after the Peace of Westphalia and the Thirty Years War, statistics become an essential component in maintaining control, regulation and production over the population. What is measured exactly? Rather than wealth of the nation, we start to see wealth being measured individually. Production, imports, exports, the resources of the nation, the birth rate among a whole host of other phenomena. The question then becomes how can we maintain control, regulation and the production over human life with the power of the Sovereign gone and the government now wielding power? The answer is in statistics and "letting things flow" or liberalism. At this point, it becomes essential as well to maximize the strength of the population while controlling the production over life for power of the government and state. The rise of disciplines, vaccination, the penal institution, the school, a military and diplomatic apparatus, all of these things now became essential in order to preserve this new power wielded by government and not just a sovereign.


To conclude, biopolitical power is principally about the production and control over life in a given population that arose due to the complexity of the world system, the exponential increases in the circulation of goods, people, and ideas, and the rise of liberalism during the 18th century. It remains to be seen how biopower will manifest itself in State's that due not follow a liberal mode of political and philosophical organization. In line with that, arises the question of a data driven form of autonomous governance that could possibly demonstrate biopower manifesting itself in State's that aren't following the liberal model proposed by the West.




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