Foucault’s Governmentality: Summary Notes

The famous philosopher Foucault has enriched us with his ideas on various topics and an important one among them is his concept of governmentality. He discussed this topic of governmentality or government rationality through a series of lectures.

Governmentality for Foucault simply meant ‘the conduct of conduct ‘, which can be simplified as an activity meant to control the conduct of people. This included various forms of relations such as private interpersonal relations, relations in social institutions and communities, and relations with self, but what concerned Foucault the most was the relations in the political domain, i.e., relations concerning the exercise of political sovereignty.

General Introduction

Foucault looked deep into the way a government functioned, its activities, and how the activities are carried on, such as who can govern and who is governed, or what governing is. This system of thinking about the art of government is what is called the rationality of government.

Foucault sought to understand modern societies through the ‘techniques of power’ that would observe and understand individual behaviors within the realm of the social and economic institute, prisons, etc.). This technique, he believed, was not just limited to small institutions, but could be applied to bigger spheres, such as entire societies.

Foucault tried to balance between the state theory, which revolves solely around essential properties of the state and the political theory, that gives too much importance to institutions but not practices. He believed that the state has no essence, but is actually a function of the changes in practices of government.

Foucault linked macrophysics and microphysics of power through the concept of biopower, that roughly referred to the power exercised over individuals for them being a part of the population, where issues of national policy and power are related to issues of personal conduct. Foucault linked biopolitics to the theme of government through the idea of counter politics where the individual conduct forms the very basis for political demands. This is called the ‘strategic reversibility’ of power relations.

Foucault viewed power as an open concept, where the individuals upon whom power is exercised are free individuals and power where is just acting on the actions of others.

A key feature of Foucault’s governmentality is that it is free from value judgments. He differentiated his theory from the state theory, saying that how power is actually exercised under sovereignty cannot be understood by studying a theory of sovereignty.

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Governmentality in different domains

Foucault sorted his study of governmentality into four historical domains-

  • Greek philosophy and early Christianity on pastoral power
  • Early modern Europe on the reason of state and police state
  • Eighteenth-century beginning of liberalism, on the art of governmental
  • Neo-liberal thought in Germany, US, and France on rethinking the rationality of government

Foucault did not agree with the idea that the welfare state could be an early version of the totalitarian state. He was against political paranoia or the fear that the state will expose its reality, but he also denied the acceptance of governmental abuses. He viewed nothing as evil but everything as dangerous and thus we should be aware to be able to prevent disasters. Foucault accepted the effectiveness of liberalism as an art of government to restrain expansionism. Liberalism according to him, could calculate the limit of power of a state and make it function according to its own capacity. He, however, objected the projection of guaranteed freedom. Foucault thinks that the way of governing can be affected by the idea of its rationality which is in accordance with the needs of both the governing and the governed. Foucault adds that our existing conceptions and practices are more modifiable than we think. These two ideas converge under the notion of the government being conduct of the conduct, with the dynamic relationship between the governing and the governed. Foucault suggested that the government work with the governed, on resolving common problems.

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Burchell, G., Gordon, C., & Miller, P. (n.d.). The Foucault effect: studies in governmentality. The University of Chicago Press. chapter 1.pp 1-51

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