Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics – Chapter Twelve

• ‘Homo economicus strips the sovereign of power inasmuch as he reveals an essential, fundamental and major incapacity of the sovereign, that is to say, an inability to master the totality of the economic field. The sovereign cannot fail to be blind vis-à-vis the economic domain or field as a whole. The whole set of economic processes cannot fail to elude a would-be central, totalizing, bird’s-eye-view’ (p. 292).

• Possible solutions were : (1) to demarcate market and non-market spaces, and enable political power to be exercised in non-market domains; and (2) to cede control over economic processes but develop superior maps of the economic process (Physiocrats) – ‘in the Physiocrats’ perspective the sovereign will have to pass from political activity to theoretical passivity in relation to the economic process’ (p. 293)

• As neither of these options are satisfactory, “governmentable” subjects are developed through a new domain or field of reference for the art of governing, which is civil society

• The question of civil society is one of ‘how to govern, according to the rules of right, a space of sovereignty which for good or ill is inhabited by economic subjects?’ – ‘The problem of civil society is the juridical structure (economie juridique) of a governmentality pegged to the economic structure (economie economique)’ (p. 296)

• Civil society as a governmental technology: ‘An omnipresent government, a government which nothing escapes, a government which conforms to the rules of right, and a government which nonetheless respects the specificity of the economy, will be a government that manages civil society, the nation, society, the social’ (p. 296).

• Civil society is not a ‘primary reality’, but rather a ‘transactional reality’, like madness or sexuality – ‘an element of transactional reality in the history of governmental technologies’ that correlates to liberalism as ‘a technology of government whose objective is its own self-limitation insofar as it is pegged to the specificity of economic processes’ (p. 297)

• From the mid C18th, and particularly with Adam Ferguson’s History of Civil Society (published at roughly the same time as The Wealth of Nations), civil society appears as:
1. A historical-natural constant beyond which nothing can be found;
2. The spontaneous synthesis of individuals – the social bond which requires no contract non-egoist interests represented in civil society, which is nonetheless territorially bounded in ways that the market is not;
3. A permanent matrix of political power, that is spontaneously formed rather than being the expression of a social contract between governors and governed – ‘in civil society the groups; decision appears to be the decision of the whole group, but when we look more closely at how this takes place we see that the decisions were taken, as [Ferguson] says, “in more select parties”;
4. A motor of history, in so far as it presents the possibility of a stable equilibrium between market society/homo economicus and that which is outside of it (benevolence, community, consent) – developments in economic society and civil society must bear a relationship to one another, as expressed through government and law – civil society can therefore never be static

• The German tradition of counterposing the state and civil society is contrasted to the English tradition of conceiving of civil society within problematics of government – ‘Does civil society really need a government?’ (Thomas Paine) (p. 310)

• The recentring of government associated with liberalism is the shift from government based upon the wisdom of the sovereign (raison d’Etat), to government based upon rationality and calculation. Rationality as a governmental technology is limited, however, by both the invisibility of economic processes and the autonomy of economic subjects. The concept of homo economicus exists less as an attempt to describe human behaviour than as a means of pegging a rationality to subjects that makes them amenable to governmental actions that act as changes to the external environment.

• The different governmental rationalities that have overlapped and competed since the 19th century have been government according to truth (Marxism as government according to the truth of history), art of government according to reason/rationality of the sovereign state, and art of government according to the rationality of economic agents.

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About Terry Flew

I am Professor of Media and Communication in the Creative Industries Faculty at the Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia. I am the author of New Media: An Introduction, the fourth edition of which was published by Oxford University Press in 2014. I am also the author of Understanding Global Media, published by Palgrave in 2007, and The Creative Industries, Culture and Policy, published by Sage in 2012.