Governmentality

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Governmentality – a concept explored in detail by Roland Barthes[1] – as a Marxist tool to describe market variations and the state’s attempt to claim responsibility for them (when the outcome was positive). This neologism was developed further by Foucault to account for:

“the way in which the modern state began to worry about individuals’ by asking: ‘How to govern oneself, how to be governed, how to govern others, by whom the people will accept being governed, how to become the best possible governor.”[2]

 The development of the regime of governmentality arose out of two processes: the displacement of feudalism by the sovereign-state and the Reformation and its counters. Daily economic and spiritual government were redefined and brought under the control of the new social formations that arose out of these processes. The state emerged as a centralizing tendency that sought to normalize itself and others, while a devolved religious authority produced a void, which came as a result of ecclesiastical conflicts and debates about divine right(s). The doctrine of transcendence and royalty came to represent managerial rather than immanent rule[3].

 Government, governmentality and governance, came to be conceived and actualized in terms of climate, disease, industry, finance, custom and disaster – literally, a concern with life and death, and what could be calculated and managed between them. Wealth and health became goals to be attained through the disposition of capacities across the population, and “biological existence was reflected in political existence”[4]. The site of class antagonism, under neoliberalism, is now framed in terms of bringing “life and its mechanisms into the realm of explicit calculations” and making “knowledge-power an agent of transformation of human life” [5]. The individual thus became identified with political activity.

 Governing people, under this regime, has come to mean obeying the “imperative of health: at once the duty of each and the objective of all”[6]. Neoliberal capitalism as articulated the modern’s states imperative to deliver a docile and healthy labour force to business; thus cholera, sanitation and prostitution were figured as problems for governments to address in the contemporary era, through “the emergence of the health and physical well-being of the population in general as one of the essential objectives of political power”[7]. The state is increasingly moved towards generative, productive power. Central here is the shift away from accumulation of power by the force of the sovereign, towards the population as the capacity to produce and consume things, while insisting on the state to regulate freedom in some compartments of life and complete obedience in others[8][9].

 The neoliberal usage of governmentality can be understood in the following ways:

 §  The utilization of economics to mold the population into efficient and effective producers.

§  The design of an array of apparatuses to create the conditions for this productivity, largely through the promotion of ‘individuality’.

§  The transformation of justice into human ‘improvement’ seen through the relationship between education and penology.

§  The indoctrination of the state by the social and the infestation of sovereignty with demography.

§  The centering of the population as a set of desiring, producing subjects who are both ready to ‘fight’ for the state and to ‘question’ its activities.

§  The development of the ‘market’ as the “ ‘test,’ a locus of privileged experience where one [can] identify the effects of excessive governmentality”[10].

§  The management of the social squarely within the realm of ‘civil society’[11].

§  Governance as the science that seeks to organize the public by having it organize itself, through the material inscription of discourse into policies and programs of the state and capital through technology[12].


[1] See Barthes, 1973: 130.

[2] Foucault, 1991b: 4.

[3] Foucault, 1991a: 87-90.

[4] Foucault, 191a: 97

[5] Foucault, 1991a: 92-95.

[6] Foucault, 1991a: 277. Foucault also notes that even as Revolutionary France was embarking on a régime of slaughter, public-health campaigns were underway, as the state constructed what Foucault terms a ‘Janus-faced’ “games between death and life”.

[7] Foucault, 2003: 241.

[8] Foucault, 1994: 125.

[9] Foucault (2003: 29, 37, 241) uses the example in this context of the ‘problem of the central soul’ of the state, was become conceived as immanent in “multiple peripheral bodies” and the messy labour of controlling them. Such move allowed for the “transformation, not at the level of political theory, but rather at the level of mechanisms, techniques and technologies of power”.

[10] Foucault, 1997: 76.

[11] As Foucault (1979b) notes, “civil society is the concrete ensemble within which these abstract points, economic men, need to be positioned in order to be made adequately manageable”.

[12] Foucault (1988: 18) develops this concept further, calling technology the “matrix of popular reason”, and indicating that it has four categories:

§  ‘Technologies of Production’: which make for the physical transformation of material objects;

§  ‘Technologies of Sign Systems’: which are semiotic;

§  ‘Technologies of Power’: which form subjects as a means of dominating individuals and encouraging them to define themselves in particular ways;

§  ‘Technologies of the Self’: which are applied to individuals to make themselves autotelically happy.

This analysis is not so distant from Classical Marxism, and is useful as a means to inspect neoliberalism.

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