October 3, 2010

Governmentality: power in parts per million

NOTE: The following is a short reaction to reading Michel Foucault's series of lectures "Security, Territory, Population." And yes, you will see a reference to a spicy chicken sandwich.

What interests me most about this set of lectures by Foucault is the shift in thinking and organization that took place with the transition from sovereign authority to governmentality. The difference between the two, in short, is all about statistical reasoning. Rule shifts from specific rights to a numbers game in which governments learn to deal with expected deviations, digressions, and setbacks as a matter of course. For the sovereign monarch, power and rule was directed toward the control of specific territories, law, justice, and wealth. Govermentality, which is focused on the management of a population in aggregate, is all about “letting things take their course” (45).

Many trends in the 17th and 18th centuries reflect this shift in thinking, from the development of the discipline of economics, to epidemiology, criminology, and even evolutionary theory. This shift in thought moves away from the restrictive control of discipline and toward a laisser-faire understanding of larger social and political processes that essentially solve problems themselves by simply being allowed to run amok. While sovereign forms of power relied on strict discipline, which isolates and controls, governmentality relies on “security”, which is expansive or centrifugal (45). Security radiates, expands, and extends itself into various social and political spheres. While discipline is about regulation, “security” is directed toward opening the numerical floodgates of probability and allowing “inevitable processes” to take their course.

Law is a forbidding force, while discipline is a punishing force. Security, on the other hand, responds to reality “in such a way that this response cancels out the reality to which it responds—nullifies it, or limits, checks, or regulates it” (47). According to Foucault, apparatuses of security do not function according to a restrictive, or negative formulation of power. These apparatuses work through what he calls a “freedom of circulation” (49). Diseases cancel themselves out when they run their course (and when they eliminate certain pieces of the social body); the purposive allowance of starvation staves off problems of economic scarcity. This is governmentality. Decisions are made based upon an aggregate understanding of the health, wealth, or productive power of populations as a whole. Starvation of one segment of the social body allows for the cleansing forces of the free market to strengthen the population as a whole. Or so the thinking goes. Laisser-faire economic theory may be seen as vaccination writ large, side effects and all. The risks of these apparatuses of security, Foucault argues, are not spread evenly throughout the population (61).

The natural desires of the population, also known as the pursuit of self-interest, are unleashed (73). These “desires” reflect a very different understanding of governance; gone is the focus on individual right, status, or responsibility (75). The population exhibits tendencies, convictions, behaviors, and fears that cannot simply be reduced to individuals (ibid). Governmentality is about assessing, predicting, and managing these collective desires, effects, and trends with particular ends in mind (power, health, profit, etc).

I’m going to end with a particular example of governmentality that all of us deal with on a day-to-day basis. We all eat every day, right? Each year, a number of people die from the food they eat, often from contaminants or other “deviations”. This fact come as no surprise to the US government, let alone the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Statistically speaking, a certain number of people are expected to die, and the basic job of the FDA is to do what it can to manage those numbers while allowing food producing industries and the “market” to do what they do best. This means that limits are set, for example, on the accepted parts per million of “contaminants” that are allowed in our food. A whole range of studies, tests, reports, and statistics are used to police food producing industries.

Statistics and reports are the tools of governmentality, all designed to keep the numbers in the right place. While some individuals will have to deal with the adverse effects of a particularly deadly microbe in their spicy chicken sandwich, “natural” forces are allowed to circulate and “cancel out” such minor inconveniences, thereby assuring the supposed health/vigor of the social (and economic) body as a whole. This is governmentality at its finest: a shift away from focusing on individual rights and sovereign rule, toward a greater concern with aggregate costs, benefits, and desires. So, either you die by beheading in the 1300s in the name of SOVEREIGN LAW, or you lose your life to a chicken sandwich in 2010 in the name of statistics and free market economics. Clearly, the violence of power can be delivered in very different ways.

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