Foucault’s Targets: Functionalism and Fear

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There are two targets to Foucault’s criticism: the classic state theories of Marxism and Anarchism, the first of which he charges with functionalism whereby the state is an epiphenomenal effect of a model of production, while the second he accuses of treating the state as a ‘cold monster’ to be universally feared (Security, Territory, Population, 109; 114fn39). In turn, Foucault suggests that political analysis should minimize the importance of the state, because perhaps “the state is only composite reality and a mythicized abstraction whose importance is much less than we think. What is important for our modernity, that is to say, for our present, is not the state’s takeover (éstatisation) of society, so much as what I would call the ‘governmentalization’ of the state” (Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, 109).[1]

Anglo-American social sciences have taken up Foucault’s approach in earnest. Interestingly, they took their initial inspiration from a single lecture on governmentality that comes from the much longer lecture series entitled Security, Territory, Population – the lecture I quoted from above.[2] Even without the associated three-year lecture series where Foucault completed a genealogy of the liberal rule, Anglo-Americans were still able to developed a highly original methodology for Foucaultian state theory that took seriously Foucault’s enjoinment to study ‘the governmentalization of the state.’

Governmentality Studies is profound in that it does not study the state as such, but rather, “forms of power without a center, or rather with multiple centers, power that was productive of meanings, of interventions, of entities, of processes, of objects, of written traces and of lives” (Rose and Miller, Governing the Present, 9). The empirical bent of governmentality studies thus brackets the state altogether, contending that, to the extent that the state exists as an object of investigation, it exists only in “governmental practices” and “state effects” (Birth of Biopolitics: 2; Mitchell, “Society, Economy, and the State Effect;” Mitchell, “The Limits of the State”). Or as Bob Jessop contends, “to study governmentality in its generic sense is to study the historical constitution of different state forms in and through changing practices of government without assuming that the state has a universal or general essence.” (“Rescaling States,” 37).

The recent publication of Foucault’s three-part state genealogy provides ample material to bolster the governmentality study approach. In Birth of Biopolitics, for instance, Foucault critiques “state phobia,” putting forth both a political argument, that state phobia laid the groundwork for neo-liberalism, but also methodological argument. In his methodological argument, Foucault argues that the “interchangeability of analyses” that results from state phobia contributes to a “loss of specificity” that allows the opponents of the state to evade possible empirical and historical challenges and thus “avoid paying the price of reality and actuality” (188). Demonstrating the significance of ‘paying the price’ and proving the Foucault’s political argument true, the best governmentality scholarship  shows how the claim that contemporary liberalism  ‘governs best by governing least’ belies the fact that state sovereignty is neither limited nor in decline – neoliberalism is expanded governance by other means (Rose and Miller, “Political Power Beyond the State.”). This expanded governance is the subject of governmentality research, which has documented the hidden fist at work behind the invisible hand in privatized risk-management, community empowerment initiatives, and governmental influence over market forces through entrepreneurship initiatives (O’Malley, “Risk and Responsibility”; Cruikshank, The Will to Empower; Rose, Inventing Ourselves).


[1] Despite the recent acceptance of Foucault’s theory of the state as an essential part of his oeuvre, its status deserves comment – after the success of Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality, Foucault suffered from a ‘silent’ seven years. In that time, he ceased publishing books although he meticulously constructed book-length genealogies of liberalism that chronologically moved through sovereignty, early modern statecraft, and 20th century economics, which he presented as lectures to the Collège de France (“Society Must Be Defended”; Security, Territory, Population; The Birth of Biopolitics). The famous “governmentality” essay was a lecture in the Security, Territory, Population series. These lectures have been released in full in the last decade, but their unfinished quality and Foucault’s decision not to publish the material raises methodological questions – in particular, whether or not he ultimately agrees with his own claim on the significance, comparative preference, and veracity of the theory of state he presents in these lectures.

[2] Rose, O’Malley, and Valverde (2006) also note that the Power/Knowledge anthology gave rise to some proto-governmentality scholarship before the 1979 publication of “Governmentality” in Ideology & Consciousness.

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