Biopolitics: Liberalism and Rational Human Agency

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Q. Do you think the liberal theory of government has constituted a rational human agency for the market? Discuss.

- Aryapriya Ganguly

Foucault deploys the concept of government or "governmentality" as a "guideline" for the analysis he offers by way of historical reconstructions embracing a period starting from Ancient Greek through to modern Neo-liberalism. I wish to emphasize two points here, as they seem important for an adequate assessment of the innovative potential of the notion of governmentality. First of all, the concept of governmentality demonstrates Foucault's working hypothesis on the reciprocal constitution of power techniques and forms of knowledge. The semantic linking of governing and modes of thought indicates that it is not possible to study the technologies of power without an analysis of the political rationality underpinning them. The evolution of this rationality, as the paper will explore, has been from the medieval notions of monarchy through the eighteenth century conceptualization of liberalism to the modern idea of Neo-liberalism. In other words, there are two sides to governmentality (at certain points Foucault also speaks of "the art of government"). First, the term pin-points a specific form of representation; government defines a discursive field in which exercising power is "rationalized". Second, Foucault uses the concept of government in a comprehensive sense geared strongly to the older meaning of the term and adumbrating the close link between forms of power and processes of subjectification. This process of subjectification produces the specific rational human agency that the essay will further explore and this is what according to Foucault is the notion of ‘Biopolitics’. All in all, in his history of governmentality Foucault endeavors to show how the rationality of the modern sovereign state and the modern autonomous individual co-determine each other's emergence. This is where the notion of liberalism enters the present discussion, primarily as the instrument which allows this governmentality to assert its subjecting power on the subjected through the rational agency of the market. A trajectory, tracing the emergence of liberalism in eighteenth century Europe to the dual manifestations of Neo-liberalism in post-war Germany and America, will be crucial to an understanding of this evolving rationale for the market through ‘Biopolitics’.

The duality of Homo Juridicus (the man with rights) and Homo Economicus (the economic man)has held philosophers and thinkers on the functioning of politics in thrall since the sixteenth century. Emanuel Kant’s notion of perpetual peace was premised on the right of every individual to be free and exercise their will. Only then would society, according to Kant, be perfectly harmonious. Theories of governmentality ever since have been attempts at resolving this dispute between the two modes of societal being. Rosseau’s social contract theory, premised on the idea that ‘man is born free’ is built upon Kant’s notion of perpetual peace and is crucial to understanding the genesis of liberal political theory. Rosseau’s idea translates to equal rights everywhere in the state of nature. This naturalizing of rights sounds the birth pangs of liberalism. Nature, thus turned into a homogenous entity, the very invocation of the idea of nature meant the production of an implicit truth. The point of departure for Foucault is the eighteenth century. According to him, in the middle of the eighteenth century, the market no longer appeared as the site of jurisdiction.[i] On the contrary, the market appeared as something that, in line with Rousseau, obeyed and had to obey “natural” mechanisms. This is the sense in which the market becomes the site of truth. The market, according to these physiocrats, permits the natural mechanisms to function, allowing the formation of a certain price- the “good price”- which would express an adequate relationship between the...
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