Biopolitics and political economy

A new paper proposal:


In The Birth of Biopolitics, his 1978-1979 lecture course at the College de France, Michel Foucault makes a surprising turn towards the critique of political economy. At the start of the lecture series, Foucault sets out to trace the genealogy of the “art of government” in bourgeois society, with its ever-expanding attempt to manage bodies and populations. But as the series progresses, Foucault ends up giving an account, instead, of the logic of neoliberal economics, and of the new version of subjectivity (a mutation in the form of Homo oeconomicus) that corresponds to this logic. Foucault doesn’t explicitly denounce the logic of neoliberalism; but he dissects it with the cool distance of an entomologist discussing the life cycle of parasitic wasps. Foucault’s focus upon neoliberal economic rationality is quite prescient, coming as it does shortly before the accession to power of Thatcher and Reagan, and the US Federal Reserve Bank’s turn towards monetarism. This turn in Foucault’s thought is also surprising, because it cuts against the grain of the veiled anti-Marxist polemic that is present in many of Foucault’s other works. It almost seems as if Foucault were being forced, in spite of himself, to return from his usual concerns with governmentality, power and domination, and the incitation of discourse, to the fundamental grounds of the critique of political economy.

In taking a new look at Foucault’s lectures, I want to argue two points. First, that Foucault’s account of neoliberal rationality, centered upon the market, provides an important missing piece to a Marxist understanding of capitalism under the regime of flexible accumulation. And second, that Foucault’s own turn to the critique of political economy is, ironically enough, precisely what is missing from contemporary, post-Foucaultian accounts of biopolitics and biopower. My ultimate aim in this paper is to place biopolitics within the framework of capital accumulation and the contemporary regime of finance capital.

8 thoughts on “Biopolitics and political economy”

  1. Sounds great. I’m particularly interested in the “important missing piece to a Marxist understanding of capitalism under the regime of flexible accumulation.” I’ll admit I’m skeptical – it seems to me that the neo in neoliberalism suggests that insofar as Marxist accounts of classical liberal capitalism were accurate then those models should have at least some analytical purchase on the present. Still, this sounds great and I’d be keen to read it.

  2. Thanks, Nate. Actually, I am entirely inclined to agree that “insofar as Marxist accounts of classical liberal capitalism were accurate then those models should have at least some analytical purchase on the present.” What I think Foucault adds has to do with the way that neoliberalism (re-)centralizes things around “the market” and “competition”, which I think helps explain how circulation has become a site of direct exploitation and surplus value extraction, rather than a source of “faux frais” that have to be deducted from surplus value. And I would relate this as well to the Hardt/Negri idea about real (instead of merely formal) subsumption.

    That said, the main thrust of the essay will be to use Foucault against contemporary Foucaultians, in order to reposition “biopolitics” & “biopower” within the context of capital accumulation & capital logic — which I think most recent formulations have ignored.

  3. Sounds like a great paper. I would be interested in reading it to (when it’s done.) I’ve felt for a while that Marx and Foucault are more complementary than opposed since the disciplining of labor requires the disciplining of bodies. I remember that Foucault makes an interesting, though brief comment to this effect in Discipline and Punish, though now I’m at pains to find it.

  4. You may want to check out Jeff Nealon’s recent book, Foucault Beyond Foucault, which has begun some of this work.

  5. hi Steve,
    I should say, our disagreement is minor, and I’m excited to read the paper. W/r/t finance and circulation as a site of exploitation, I want to think more about that. My instinct is to disagree if the claim is that this is strongly novel as opposed to a recurrence. Arrighi has an article some place where he suggests that Marx’s M-C-M series can be a way to understand changes in capitalism over time, M being the reign of monetary capitalists and C being the reign of commodity producing capitalists. In one of the transitions from one to the other (I forget which) he thinks primitive accumulation is more likely to occur. If you’ve not read it, it might be useful for you. I can chase up the reference if you like. Anyway, the paper sounds quite good and I look forward to reading it.
    take care,

  6. Nate — yes, I find Arrighi’s formulation very useful — he goes over that in his book The Long 20th Century. (I have just ordered his more recent book, Adam Smith in Beijing, which is supposedly something of a sequel).

  7. Interestingly enough, I taught the neo-liberalism lectures last seminar in my grad seminar on sovereignty. One point that I found quite rife with potential was the underlying idea that the liberal democracies turned to neo-liberalism, away from the New Deal and social democratic safety nets, because of the onset of scarcity. Foucault refers to the oil crisis, but it seems to be the elephant in the book: did these governments choose the path of neo-liberalism because they found it necessary to do so? To what extent might neo-liberalism reflect a dynamic of competition that holds perhaps even more strongly in periods of economic decline?

  8. Excuse me for jumping in but I love this topic.

    I am not sure scarcity drove the turn toward neoliberalism because neoliberalism really just extends the fundamental premises of liberalism, although it does reconfigure the relationship between the state and the market as the market is turned against the state. There is a very good essay by Donzelot “Michel Foucault and Liberal Intelligence.” Economy and Society 37 (2008): 115-134 that explores this subject. Also, Melinda Cooper’s most recent book has some interesting comments on this subject.

    I take it up also (rather ponderously I’m afraid) in my book on governmentality and biopower. If you email me I can send the chapter….


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