Bernard E. Harcourt | Introducing The Birth of Biopolitics

By Bernard E. Harcourt

Faire sortir de la véridiction du marché la juridicité de l’État: c’est ça le miracle allemand. (NB, p. 96 n*). (Naissance de la biopolitique, p. 96 n.*; Birth of Biopolitics, p. 95 n*).

The lectures from 1979, The Birth of Biopolitics, “continue” (in the words of Foucault) the genealogy of the arts of government that he had begun the previous year in Security, Territory, Population. In this sense, the 1979 lectures can be understood as Part II of a two-part history of governmentality—one that Foucault would never publish during his lifetime.

The genealogy had begun the previous year in a retrospective manner—starting from the end, that is—with the problematization of contemporary styles of governmental rationality, namely with the law & economics model of crime and punishment, which Foucault captured through the following question: “The general question basically will be how to keep a type of criminality, theft for instance, within socially and economically acceptable limits and around an average that will be considered as optimal for a given social functioning.” (STP, p 5). The year before, the genealogy traversed pastoral modes of governing before elaborating, in great detail, the type of governmental rationality known as raison d’État from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—which Foucault recaps and summarizes in the first lecture of The Birth of Biopolitics (pp. 4-10).

In Part II then, starting in January 1979, Foucault picks up the genealogical story from the middle of the eighteenth century with an elaborate four-part analysis of what he calls a new “limited” mode of governmentality which he associates with liberalism—a four-part analysis that covers (1) eighteenth century English liberalism; (2) twentieth century German ordo-liberalism; (3) 1970s French Giscardian neoliberalism; and (4) American Chicago School neoliberalism—before concluding with a capstone lecture on the notion of “civil society.” Foucault identifies the form of rationality associated with liberalism primarily through its own internal understanding of its own incompetence at governing and the resulting felt need for auto-limitations on governmental reason itself. By contrast to the internal logic of Polizeiwissenschaft or the administrative-police state of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—which stands as the metaphor for discipline and carries with it an unlimited ambition to govern every minute aspect of daily life, social, political, and personal—the new form of “liberal” governmental rationality that Foucault explores in The Birth of Biopolitics has its roots in a self-conception of limitation: “Let sleeping dogs lie,” in the words of the British statesman Robert Walpole (1676-1745) (BB p. 1, 10, and 20).

What drives the inquiry—exactly like the year before—is Foucault’s conviction that this new art of governing has set in motion a regime of truth that operates “today”: « le dispositif de base est en somme le même encore aujourd’hui » (NB p. 20; BB, p. 18). It is the contemporary nature of this liberal rationality, of this « autolimitation de la pratique gouvernementale » (NB p. 19)—the fact that it is pervasive and dominant today (that is, in 1979)—that is what fascinates and motivates Foucault, just as he had indicated in his lectures the year before. “[T]he problem of liberalism arises for us in our immediate and concrete actuality,” Foucault insists. That is precisely “what is at stake in all this,” he emphasizes (BB, p. 22). “[I]t is a problem of our times,” Foucault explains (ibid.). A “problem of our times” that is made all the more problematic because of its direct relationship to forms of truth that dominate “our times,” namely the belief in the need for limited governmental intervention in the economic sphere, or what could be called the illusion of free markets.

It is the link between these new forms of liberal economic rationality and the production of truth today that motivates the 1979 lectures. Whereas Foucault had explored in his earliest lectures the link between truth and juridical forms (i.e., ordeals or tests, inquiries, and examinations), and whereas he had turned in the next round of lectures (“Society Must Be Defended” and STP) to the relationship between truth and historical forms (i.e., universal histories, realist or local histories, and his own “counter-history”), in 1979 Foucault now turns his attention to what could be called “truth and economic forms”: to the role of political economy as the basis of regimes of truth regarding the proper limitations on governing.

From this perspective, the market becomes the archetypical space for the production of truth—what he calls « un lieu de véridiction » (NB, p. 33)—just as the mental hospital, the clinic, or the prison had been in his previous books. Political economy replaces law and the juridical as the idealized source of limitations on governmental action based on a newfound “truth” in the incompetence of the state. The market is transformed from the space of law, juridical power, and regulation (jurisdiction) in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, to the space of truth, natural order, and natural law (veridiction) in the mid-eighteenth century (NB, p. 33-35).

It is in these passages on what Foucault names “veridiction” that we see emerge the overarching theme of Foucault’s multi-year research project: namely, the idea of a “history of truth,” obviously not in the sense of a history of Truth, but rather a history of the practices, institutions, and discourses that ground our claims of truth and our truthful beliefs. It is precisely this project of a “history of truth” grounded on the study of different forms of veridiction that will guide Foucault’s research over the next phase of his lecture series and that he will discusses so poignantly, retrospectively, in the introductory section on “Modifications” at the beginning of Volume 2 of The History of Sexuality in 1984.

In 1979, this research project takes Foucault through a reading of the liberal art of governing, beginning first with an analysis of early English liberal thought from Adam Smith to Jeremy Bentham (lecture of January 24, 1979); turning, second, to the writings of German liberals from the 1940s and 50s (January 31 and February 7, 14, and 21, 1979); moving, third, to French liberal discourse under President Giscard d’Estaing in the early 1970s (March 7, 1979); and then analyzing, fourth, the neoliberal texts of the Chicago School (March 14, 21, and 28, 1979), with a special emphasis on the writings of Gary Becker that gave the original impulse to the entire line of analysis in the first pages of STP.

With all these varieties of liberalism in place, Foucault turns in his final lecture, on April 4, 1979, to the overarching notion of “civil society” that undergirds the liberal arts of governing, with special attention to Ferguson’s Essay on the History of Civil Society from 1787. By concluding with this inquiry into how the key notion of “civil society” emerged and came to ground the “truth” of the state-society divide, the 1979 lectures on The Birth of Biopolitics make clear the object of its analysis and study: namely, this “problem of our times” which is the contemporary liberal ideas of political power, governmental regulation, and governing of self and others.

An intense debate has recently erupted over Foucault’s personal sympathies and political views on neoliberalism; however, the structure of his two-part genealogy of governmentality in STP and The Birth of Biopolitics, which begins with the pastoral model and ultimately leads to a critique of the notion of “civil society”—in other words, the very structure of this particular political-economic history of truth, which Foucault summarizes in the last paragraphs of these 1979 lectures (NB, pp. 314-317)—should put such questions to rest. As François Ewald suggests, Foucault was no more Machiavellian for studying raison d’État or Physiocrat for studying François Quesnay, than he was neoliberal for studying Gary Becker.

The challenge to contemporary readers of The Birth of Biopolitics is to draw on Foucault’s preliminary analyses of these liberal texts to imagine a more full-blown critique of neoliberal governmental rationality. Not to predict what Foucault would have written had he decided to continue to work on this particular form of veridiction, on this political-economic episode in the history of truth, but rather to develop a robust critique of our dominant liberal arts of governing today. That was, in part, the challenge that Gary Becker, François Ewald, and I set for ourselves in our seminars at the University of Chicago in 2012 and 2013, seminars which were sadly cut short by the death of Gary Becker. It was also—now that I look back on it—what I was trying to tackle in The Illusion of Free Markets: Punishment and the Myth of Natural Order (Harvard 2011). In fact, on this most recent rereading of The Birth of Biopolitics, I finally identified the precise point of overlap with The Illusion of Free Markets, specifically at the point where Foucault discusses the second consequence of the liberal art of government:

The second consequence of this liberalism and liberal art of government is the considerable extension of procedures of control, constraint, and coercion which are something like the counterpart and counterweights of different freedoms. I have drawn attention to the fact that the development, dramatic rise, and dissemination throughout society of these famous disciplinary techniques for taking charge of the behavior of individuals day by day and in its fine detail is exactly contemporaneous with the age of freedoms. Economic freedom, liberalism in the sense I have just been talking about, and disciplinary techniques are completely bound up with each other. […] Panopticism is not a regional mechanics limited to certain institutions; for Bentham, panopticism really is a general political formula that characterizes a type of government. (BB, p. 67; NB, p. 68)

This passage captures pretty precisely the American paradox of laissez-faire and mass incarceration—or what is called “neoliberal penalty.” And, contrary to those thinkers who tie it specifically to the neoliberal period, beginning in the early 1970s, the connection here goes all the way back to the birth of the liberal arts of governing. This is consistent with the early despotism of natural order in Physiocratic thought.


Let me conclude this introduction to The Birth of Biopolitics with one of the more prescient insights from Foucault’s economic history of truth—especially in light of the recent euro crisis—namely how economic growth produces political power within the neoliberal paradigm. Writing on “German neo-liberalism,” on what he refers to as “a fundamental feature of contemporary German governmentality,” Foucault states on January 31, 1979:

we should not think that economic activity in contemporary Germany, that is to say, for thirty years, from 1948 until today, has been only one branch of the nation’s activity. We should not think that good economic management has had no other effect and no other foreseen and calculated end than that of securing the prosperity of all and each. In fact, in contemporary Germany, the economy, economic development and economic growth, produces sovereignty; it produces political sovereignty through the institution and institutional game that, precisely, makes this economy work. The economy produces legitimacy for the state that is its guarantor. In other words, the economy creates public law, and this is all absolutely important phenomenon, which is not entirely unique in history to be sure, but is nonetheless a quite singular phenomenon in our times. In contemporary Germany there is a circuit going constantly from the economic institution to the state; and if there is an inverse circuit going from the state to the economic institution, it should not be forgotten that the element that comes first in this kind of siphon is the economic institution. There is a permanent genesis, a permanent genealogy of the state from the economic institution. And even this is not saying enough, for the economy does not only bring a juridical structure or legal legitimization to a German state that history had just debarred. This economic institution, the economic freedom that from the start it is the role of this institution to guarantee and maintain, produces something even more real, concrete, and immediate than a legal legitimization; it produces a permanent consensus of all those who may appear as agents within these economic processes, as investors, workers, employers, and trade unions. All these economic partners produce a consensus, which is a political consensus, inasmuch as they accept this economic game of freedom. (BB, p. 84; NB, p. 85).

One Comment

  1. hat is an excellent lecture notes and it will be very useful as a reference material for a graduate course entitled as The Philosophical Foundation of Macro Economy-Politics offered for students in law as well as in the political science departments.

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