The Birth of Biopolitics Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978--1979

Lectures at the Collège de France

Michel Foucault




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368 Pages



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This series of lectures presents Foucault's study of the two major twentieth century schools of neo-liberalism: German ordo-liberalism and the neo-liberalism of the Chicago School. In the years he taught at the Collège de France, this was Michel Foucault's sole foray into the field of contemporary history. This course thus raises questions of political philosophy and social policy that are at the heart of current debates about the role and status of neo-liberalism in twentieth century politics. A remarkable feature of these lectures is their discussion of contemporary economic theory and practice, culminating in an analysis of the model of Homo oeconomicus.

Foucault's analysis also highlights the paradoxical role played by "society" in relation to government. "Society" is both that in the name of which government strives to limit itself, but it is also the target for permanent governmental intervention to produce, multiply, and guarantee the freedoms required by economic liberalism.


Praise for The Birth of Biopolitics

"Once more Michel Foucault demonstrates that he was perhaps the most prescient and challenging thinker of the twentieth century, and these lectures from 1978-9 have an enduring relevance for all those seeking to understand the forms of liberalism under which we are governed at the start of the twenty first century."—Nikolas Rose, London School of Economics

"This is an excellent translation of Michel Foucault's fascinating lectures on the history of the arts or sciences of liberal government from Adam Smith to the neo-liberalism of the German and Chicago Schools. They throw critical light on the roots of neo-liberal globalization today."—James Tully, University of Victoria

"A brilliant, lucid and supremely relevant survey of the true origins of the state which cuts through the imprecision of much more theory and offers ideas which are of direct relevance not just to academics but to thsoe engaged in the political process. A reminder that academic analysis need not be dull and irrelevant. A text, drawn from live speech, which captures the magic of a brilliant mind at work."—Nick Butler, Cambridge Centre for Energy Studies


Foreword: François Ewald and Alessandro Fontana

One: 10 January 1979
Questions of method. — Suppose universals do not exist. — Summary of the previous year's lectures: the limited objective of the government raison d'État (external politics) and unlimited objective of the police state (internal politics). — Law as principle of the external limitation raison d'État. — Perspective of this year's lectures: political economy as principle of the internal limitation of governmental reason. — What is at stake in this research: the coupling of a set of practices and a regime of truth and the effects of its inscription in reality. — What is liberalism.

Two: 17 January 1979
Liberalism and the implementation of a new art of government in the eighteenth century. — Specific features of the liberal art of government ( I ): ( 1 ) The constitution of the market as site of the formation of truth and not just as domain of jurisdiction. — Questions of method. The stakes of research undertaken around madness, the penal order, and sexuality: sketch of a history of "regimes of verdiction." — The nature of a political critique of knowledge (savoir). — ( 2 ) The problem of limiting the exercise of power by public authorities. Two types of solution: French juridical radicalism and English utilitarianism. — The question of "utility" and limiting the exercise of power by public authorities. — Comment on the status of heterogeneity in history: strategic against dialectical logic. — The notion of "interest" as operator (opérateur) of the new art of government.

Three: 24 January 1979
Specific features of the liberal art of government ( II ): ( 3 ) The problem of European balance and international relations. — Economic and political calculation in mercantilism. The principle of freedom of the market according to the physiocrats and Adam Smith: birth of a new European model. — Appearance of a governmental rationality extended to a world scale. Examples: the question of maritime law; the projects of perpetual peace in the eighteenth century. — Principles of the new liberal art of government: a "governmental naturalism"; the production of freedom. — The problem of liberal arbitration. Its instruments: ( 1 ) the management of dangers and the implementation of mechanisms of security; ( 2 ) disciplinary controls (Bentham's panopticism); ( 3 ) inverventionist policies. — The management of liberty and its crises.

Four: 31 January 1979
Phobia of the state. — Questions of method: sense and stakes of the bracketing off of a theory of the state in the analysis of mechanisms of power. — Neo-liberal governmental practices: German liberalism from 1948 to 1962; American neo-liberalism. — German neo-liberalism ( I ). Its political-economic context. — The scientific council brought together by Erhard in 1947. Its program: abolition of price controls and limitation of governmental interventions. — The middle way defined by Erhard in 1948 between anarchy and the "termite state". — Its double meaning: ( a ) respect for economic freedom as condition of the state's political representativity; ( b) the institution of economic freedom as basis for the formation of political sovereignty. — Fundamental characteristic of contemporary German governmentality: economic freedom, the source of juridical legitimacy and political consensus. — Economic growth, axis of a new historical consciousness enabling the break with the past. — Rallying of Christian Democracy and the SPD to liberal politics. — The principles of liberal government and the absence of a socialist governmental rationality.

Five: 7 February 1979
German neo-liberalism ( II ). — Its problem: how can economic freedom both found and limit the state at the same time? — The neo-liberal theorists: W. Eucken, F. Böhm, A. Müller-Armack, F. von Hayek. — Max Weber and the problem of the irrational rationality of capitalism. The answers of the Frankfurt School and the Freiburg School. — Nazism as necessary field of adversity to the definition of the neo-liberal critique of National Socialism on the basis of these different elements of German history. — Theoretical consequences: extension of this critique to the New Deal and to the Beveridge plans; interventionism and the growth of the power of the state; massification and uniformization, effects of state control. — The stake of neo-liberalism: its novelty in comparison with classical liberalism. The theory of pure competition.

Six: 14 February 1979
German neo-liberalism ( III ). — Usefulness of historical analyses for the present. — How is neo-liberalism distinguished from classical liberalism? — Its specific stake: how to model the global exercise of political power on the principles of a market economy, and the transformations that derive from this. — The decoupling of the market economy and policies of laissez-faire. — The Walter Lippmann colloquium ( 26 to 30 August 1938 ). — The problem of the style of governmental action. Three examples: ( a ) the question of monopolies; ( b ) the question of "conformable actions ( actions conformes )." The bases of economic policy according to W. Eucken. Regulatory actions and organizing actions ( actions ordonnatrices ); ( c ) social policy. The ordoliberal critique of the welfare economy. — Society as the point of application of governmental interventions. The "policy of society" ( Gesellschaftspolitik ). — First aspect of this policy: the formalization of society on the model of the enterprise. — Enterprise society and judicial society; two faces of a single phenomenon.

Seven: 21 February 1979
Second aspect of the "policy of society" according to the neo-liberals: the problem of law in a society regulated according to the model of the competitive market economy. — Return of Walter Lippmann colloquium. — Reflections based on a text by Louis Rougier. — ( 1 ) The idea of a juridical-economic order. Reciprocity of relations between economic processes and institutional framework. — Political stake: the problem of the survival of capitalism. — ( 2 ) The question of legal interventionism. — Historical reminder: the Rule of law ( l'État de droit ) in the eighteenth century, in opposition to despotism and the police state. Re-elaboration of the notion in the nineteenth century: the question of arbitration between citizens and public authorities. The problem of administrative courts. — The neo-liberal project: to introduce the principles of the Rule of law into the economic order. — Rule of law and planning according to Hayek. — ( 3 ) Growth of judicial demand. — General conclusion: the specificity of the neo-liberal art of government in Germany. Ordoliberalism faced with the pessimism of Schumpeter.

Eight: 7 March 1979
General remarks: ( 1 ) The methodological scope of the analysis of micro-powers. ( 2 ) The inflationism of state phobia. Its links with ordoliberalism. — Two theses on the totalitarian state and the decline of state governmentality in the twentieth century. — Remarks on the spread of the German model, in France and in the United States. — The German neo-liberal model and the French project of a "social market economy." — The French context of the transition to a neo-liberal economics. — French social policy: the example of social security. — The separation of the economic and the social according to Giscard d'Estaing. — The project of a "negative tax" and its social and political stakes. "Relative" and "absolute" poverty. Abandonment of the policy of full employment.

Nine: 14 March 1979
American neo-liberalism ( I ). Its context. — The difference between American and European neo-liberalism. — American neo-liberalism as a global claim, utopian focus, and method of thought. — Aspects of this neo-liberalism: ( 1 ) The theory of human capital. The two processes that it represents: ( a ) an extension of economic analysis within its own domain: criticism of the classical analysis of labor in terms of the time factor; ( b ) an extension of economic analysis to domains previously considered to be non-economic. — The epistemological transformation produced by neo-liberal analysis: from the analysis of economic processes to the analysis of the internal rationality of human behavior. — Work as economic conduct. — Its division into capital, abilities, and income. — The redefinition of homo oeconomicus as entrepreneur of himself. — The notion of "human capital." Its constitutive elements: ( a ) innate elements and the question of the improvement of genetic human capital; ( b ) acquired elements and the problem of the formation of human capital (education, health, etcetera). — The interest of these analyses: resumption of the problem of social and economic innovation ( Schumpeter ). A new conception of the policy of growth.

Ten: 21 March 1979
American neo-liberalism ( II ). — The application of the economic grid to social phenomena. — Return to the ordoliberal problematic: the ambiguities of the Gesellschaftspolitik. The generalization of the "enterprise" form in the social field. Economic policy and Vitalpolitik: a society for the market and against the market. — The unlimited generalization of the economic form of the market in American neo-liberalism: principle of the intelligibility of individual behavior and critical principle of governmental interventions. — Aspects of American neo-liberalism: ( 2 ) Delinquency and penal policy. — Historical reminder: the problem of the reform of penal law at the end of the eighteenth century. Economic calculation and principle of legality. The parasitic invasion of the law by the norm in the nineteenth century and the birth of criminal anthropology. — The neo-liberal analysis: ( 1 ) the definition of crime; ( 2 ) the description of the criminal subject as homo oeconomicus; ( 3 ) the status of the penalty as instrument of law "enforcement." The example of the drugs market. — Consequences of this analysis: ( a ) anthropological erasure of the criminal; ( b ) putting the disciplinary model out of play.

Eleven: 28 March 1979
The model of homo oeconomicus. — Its generalization to every form of behavior in American neo-liberalism. — Economic analysis and behavioral techniques. — Homo oeconomicus as the basic element of the new governmental reason appeared in the eighteenth century. — Elements for a history of the notion of homo oeconomicus before Walras and Pareto. — The subject of interest in English empiricist philosophy ( Hume ). — The heterogeneity of the subject of interest and the legal subject: ( 1 ) The irreducible nature of interest in comparison with juridical will. ( 2 ) The contrasting logics of the market and the contract. — Second innovation with regard to the juridical model: the economic subject's relationship with political power. Condorcet. Adam Smith's "invisible hand": invisibility of the link between the individual's pursuit of profit and the growth of collective wealth. The non-totalizable nature of the economic world. The sovereign's necessary ignorance. — Political economy as critique of governmental reason: rejection of the possibility of an economic sovereign in its two, mercantilist and physiocratic, forms. — Political economy as a science lateral to the art of government.

Twelve: 4 April 1979
Elements for a history of the notion of homo oeconomicus ( II ). —Return to the problem of the limitation of sovereign power by economic activity. — The emergence of a new field, the correlate of the liberal art of government: civil society. — Homo oeconomicus and civil society: inseparable elements of liberal governmental technology. — Analysis of the notion of "civil society": its evolution from Locke to Ferguson. Ferguson's An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1787). The four essential characteristics of civil society according to Ferguson: ( 1 ) it is an historical-natural constant; ( 2 ) it assures the spontaneous synthesis of individuals. Paradox of the economic bond; ( 3 ) it is a permanent matrix of political power; ( 4 ) it is the motor of history. — Appearance of a new system of political thought. — Theoretical consequences: ( a ) the question of the relations between state and society. The German, English, and French problematics; ( b ) the regulation of political power: from the wisdom of the prince to the rational calculations of the governed. — General conclusion.

Course Summary

Course Context

Index of Names

Index of Concepts and Notions

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  • Michel Foucault

  • Michel Foucault, acknowledged as the preeminent philosopher of France in the 1970s and 1980s, continues to have enormous impact throughout the world in many disciplines. His works include Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, The History of Sexuality, and Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison.

    Series editor Arnold I. Davidson teaches philosophy, divinity, and comparative literature at the University of Chicago and is executive editor of the journal Critical Inquiry. The author of numerous studies on Foucault, he has been a visiting professor at the Collège de France.

    Translator Graham Burchell lives in Italy. He has written essays on Michel Foucault and was an editor of The Foucault Effect: Essays on Governmentality.