birth of biopolitics


By Vladimir Safatle*

Commentary on Michael Foucault's posthumous book resulting from a 1978-1979 course.

The new configurations of homo oeconomicus

Ever since Michel Foucault's courses at the “Collège de France” began to be edited, a privileged place for the elaboration and development of his intellectual experience has been discovered. In these courses, discussions about the set of problems that articulate the field of reflection known as “genealogy of power” appear in a structured manner. However, if the published texts gave visibility to issues that appear in the first courses (such as the problem of sexuality, madness, the punitive apparatus) and in the last ones (such as the extensive reflection on the ways of self-care in Greece and Rome There was a hiatus in the period from 1976 to 1979. Larger courses, which revolved around what Foucault called “governmentality”, that is, the rationalization of governmental practices in the exercise of political sovereignty.

The problem of governmentality is fundamental to understanding his project in recent years, as it highlights the nature of his critique of modernity. For Foucault, modernity (which, according to him, begins, in fact, from the middle of the eighteenth century) is fundamentally a historical period marked by the advent of a form of power and government whose respective names will be “biopower” and “biopolitics”. ”. Understanding the fate and impasses of modernity will be increasingly inseparable from understanding what is at stake within the notion of biopolitics. Hence the importance of this course, delivered in the 1978-1979 school year, entitled birth of biopolitics.

Sovereign and disciplinary power

Foucault normally defines biopower and biopolitics through a dichotomy between two major models of how power works: sovereign and disciplinary power. The first would be linked to the figure of the monarchical incarnation of legitimacy, with its foundation of the exercise of law in the will of the sovereign. He is the power to decide on the life and death of subjects. Against this centralized power, vertical for being asymmetrical, subjectivated at its central pole in the figure of the sovereign, and impersonal at its base, modernity would have developed the hegemony of another power. A power devoid of center and disseminated because it seems to come from everywhere, to operate in several instances and levels; horizontal power. Because it has no center, it appears as impersonal as not being exercised in the name of anyone, a power of structures that subject everyone without distinction, such as hospitals, schools, prisons, companies. This is what Foucault calls “disciplinary power” or even a “calculating management of life” and an “administration of bodies”. It will gain a fundamental framework when coupled with population regulatory controls. Hence why they will constitute a “biopower”.

Biopower interests Foucault mainly due to its individualizing capacity: “the individual, it seems to me, is nothing more than the effect of power, insofar as power is a procedure of individualization”. Foucault tends to think that submission to the sovereign's will is not constitutive in the sense that submission to disciplinary and security devices are. For submission to the will of the sovereign is a submission that occurs from time to time, while disciplinary and security power is constant and active at all levels of training. That is why the philosopher can state: “The greatest effect of disciplinary power is what we could call the in-depth rearrangement of the relations between the somatic singularity, the subject and the individual”.

It is in this context that we should read The birth of biopolitics. Foucault wants to understand how a governmental reason develops that is not directly linked to the reason of State, but which, on the contrary, appears as a peculiar principle of limitation to State sovereignty. This reason will be inseparable from the development of liberalism and its phobia of statism.

As if liberalism were, deep down, the true name of the disciplinary power developed by modernity (which perhaps explains why Foucault needs to say that socialism never developed a reflection on governmental rationality, that it only has a theory of the State, and not a theory of government). In fact, Foucault will use his entire course to show how the development of liberal political economy and its unrestricted defense of the market will be the fundamental factor to ensure the self-limitation of sovereign power.

Independence of the governed

In fact, when analyzing liberalism, especially German ordoliberalism (of Von Mises, Erhard, Röpke, Eucken) and North American neoliberalism (of Hayek and Friedman), Foucault perceives the advent of a peculiar notion of freedom. This is not a legal conception in which freedom would be conceived as the exercise of a certain number of fundamental rights. It is a concept of freedom as the independence of the governed in relation to the rulers. But this freedom must paradoxically be produced and guaranteed by government practices, it must be the result of “a formidable extension of control procedures” and training.

In this sense, neoliberalism and ordoliberalism cannot be placed under the sign of laissez faire but, on the contrary, under the sign of state surveillance and intervention. This intervention will not be in the mechanisms of the economy, in the form of nationalization, of policies to fight impoverishment, inequality and in favor of redistribution.

Rather, it will be done at the level of conditions of possibility of the economy, that is, in what allows the creation of conditions for the economy to function freely according to its principles of competition. That is why the intervention will be at the level of populations, techniques, learning and education. It will be massive in the social field and discreet in directly economic processes.

Let us note that it is not a question of trying to correct the destructive effects of the market on society, but of obtaining a society subject to competitive and mercantile dynamics. To do so, true social engineering will be necessary, capable of formalizing all spheres of social life based on the company's model. Foucault seeks to undo the myth according to which liberalism elevates the individual to the condition of an elementary unit of social life. In fact, this elementary unit is the company, or rather, the “company-form”, since “it is a matter of obtaining a society indexed, not in the merchandise and in the uniformity of the merchandise, but in the multiplicity and differentiation of the enterprise”.

At the limit, the subjective personality itself will be reconfigured as a set of aptitudes and competences capable of valuing investments applied in training, in relationships, that is, as a space for the incessant appreciation of “human capital”. That is why Foucault ends the course discussing the new configurations of homo economist: this man who is his own entrepreneur, the one capable of calculating his time, his education, the affection devoted to his children, as an investment in the production of profitability of human capital. As if the psychological notion of personality is destined to be described as a paradoxical private corporation. In this way, a new form of social control manages to impose itself through the hands of liberal “freedom”.

*Vladimir Safatle He is a full professor at the Department of Philosophy at USP. Author, among other books, of Giving body to the impossible. The sense of dialectic from Theodor Adorno (Authentic).


Michel Foucault. birth of biopolitics, Translation: Eduardo Brandão. Martins Fontes, 474 p ​​(

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