Theories of power previous to Foucault were largely based in terms of sovereign or juridical power – roughly equivalent to the dynastic power of the monarch and the legal power of the social contract. The sovereign view of power imagines power as an original right held by the king to which the subject responds. As the state form emerged, power arrangements were recast according to a social contract that posits citizen-subjects that are afforded a minor autonomy that both limits and authorizes the power of government. While most political and social theory is stuck within these two types of power, Foucault emphasized two forms of power that he argues have displaced the importance of sovereign and juridical power: disciplinary power and biopower. In disciplinary power, the human body is taken as a site of power whose capacities can be maximized by careful examination and training vis-à-vis experts and the human sciences. The docile yet productive bodies of the student, prisoner, soldier, and worker are the site of intensive investments of power, as colorfully exhibited in the pages of Discipline and Punish. In the middle of the 19th century, the logic of discipline was intensified and its scope expanded from exclusive groups to populations more generally – combining and multiplying the control of individual bodies with the control of populations as social bodies. This ‘biopower’ is exhibited predominantly in an explosion over the study and management of reproduction but is also expressed in public health, migration, housing, and maybe most dramatically: the two world wars, the threat of nuclear annihilation, genocide, and the Holocaust.
Though always present in his analysis, resistance is a strange category for Foucault. Disciplinary and biopolitical power provide difficult terrain for resistance in that they don’t work on the coercion-freedom continuum of sovereign or juridical power. On one hand Foucault is trying to avoid the power-resistance opposition characteristic of liberalism. But on the other hand, he provides short clarifying remarks about resistance in both his books (D&P 23-31, HOS 92-98) and in a number of articles and interviews. By far the most quoted phrase made by Foucault on resistance is found in History of Sexuality Volume 1, “where there is power, there is resistance” (95). And while in the explanation that proceeds, Foucault is extremely clear that the phrase is not to be taken in terms of sovereign or juridical power, it often gets read that way. Sovereign-juridical readings would argue that power is a coercive imposition of force that leaves subjects the choice of either passively submitting (coercion) or actively responding (freedom). Biopower, however, operates by capturing and re-mobilizing expressions of freedom. Reverting to sovereign or juridical forms of resistance is largely non-responsive to the new form of control and at best only indirectly limits its use. Rather than operating from above, biopower’s aim is to identify, encourage, develop, and channel clashes of power like the juridical conflict between citizen and state in order to direct them toward favorable state ends. The state relies on resistance for two reasons: first, to legitimize its governance, whether via educating the public or maintaining the police and military; and secondly to make adjustments, seeking feedback on how to refine current techniques or identifying new targets to capture. In its most extreme form, biopolitical states seek out or provoke crises in order to manage them. And in that case, merely engaging the state, even to resist its influence, may ultimately grant it enough authority to overcome you, like in the case of homo oeconomicus.
To sharpen the focus even more on the contemporary moment, Deleuze’s text “Postscript on the Societies of Control” examines the modulations of power in the latter half of the 20th century. The subjects that resisted standardization of Fordist capitalism – the usual cast of 60s counter-culture types like hippies and dropouts – used their deviance to strike at the normalizing disciplinary techniques that worked to make them a productive cogs in the machine. Neo-liberalism is a response to this proliferation of difference. It doesn’t fit subjects into pre-ordained roles, but instead capitalizes on them by monitoring, intensifying, and promoting emerging trends that can be put to use while devalorizing or disciplining the select few that are too challenging or risky to let alone. The deviant or even resistant New Age gurus who taught enlightened ways to resist the cookie-cutter banality of 1950s America didn’t create a class of consumer-resistant disciples but instead unleashed a who slew of unfelt desires that capitalists were more than happy to fulfill with new markets and commodities. Care to indulge your romantic longing for the long lost 60s? You could lob a brick through a window, but wouldn’t it be easier to grab some tickets to the next Bob Dylan concert?
For control, the importance of disciplinary techniques isn’t reduced but is intensified through generalization and diffusion. The walls of previously well-demarcated sites of discipline – the factory, the school, the barracks, the church, the family – become more porous and start resonating according the same frequency, extending and economizing their grip. What looks like relative amounts of freedom is actually a refinement of the efficiency of control; less training and discipline is needed in the factory if it was already imparted at school, or better yet, the work is done by the subject if they are a homo oeconomicus who is constantly expanding individual ‘freedom’ by economizing all aspects of their life.