Security Territory and Population Part 5: Governmentality And Introduction to Foucault’s Method

In the fourth lecture in Security, Territory and Population, Michel Foucault introduces the idea of governmentality. He begins this lecture with a discussion of the change in the idea of governing that began in the 16th Century, when writers of the day began saying that the word covers a number of different relationships.

There is the problem of government of oneself…. There was of course the problem of the government of souls and of conduct, which was, of course, the problem of Catholic or Protestant pastoral doctrine. There is the problem of the government of children, with the emergence and of the great problematic of pedagogy in the sixteenth century. And then, perhaps only the last of these problems, there is that of the government of the state by the prince. How to govern oneself, how best to be governed, by whom should we accept to be governed, how to be the best possible governor?

Foucault sees these issues as the intersection of two trends, the breakup of feudalism and its gradual replacement by a centralized state; and the dispersion of religious belief brought on by the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. Foucault says that the leading text is Machiavelli’s The Prince, both for its own ideas and for the range of texts disputing it. He says that the central idea of The Prince is that the Prince’s position as sovereign is external to his principality. He took the position by force, or by connivance with others, and his central object is retaining his power, protecting it both from external and internal threats.

Those reacting to Machiavelli emphasized the art of governing, as opposed to the art of neutralizing opposition. They observe that many people are in a position of governing, the father with the family, the teacher with the child, the master with the apprentice or employee, the judge, the mayor, the superior in a convent. Foucault points to a typology of government identified in the 16th Century by the French writer La Mothe Le Vaver. There are three levels of government, the governance of the self, which is the subject of morality; the governance of the family, which becomes identified with the economy; and the governance of the state.

These levels of governance bear on each other. If the self is well-governed, then the family is well-governed, and the state will be well-governed. If the State is well-governed, that leads to the good governance of the family and of the self. Foucault says that in this idealized arrangement the idea of the economy as a principle object of government begins to emerge. He traces this development through the 18th and 19th Centuries as the idea of the economy begins to take on the meaning it has today.

Foucault points to another writer, Guillaume de La Perriere, who wrote “Government is the right disposition of things arranged so as to lead to a suitable end.” This means first that governors act primarily on things, and not specifically on people. A suitable end is not necessarily the best end, but one that is achievable. The important point to Foucault is that government has to do with the relations between people and things, and the steps those who govern take with respect to those relationships.

There is a good bit more of this kind of exegesis of texts on the art of governance from the 16th to the late 18th Centuries, all in a similar vein. But for this theory to come into full practice, various obstacles had to be removed, and the apparatuses of security had to be developed more thoroughly. One of the barriers was the idea of sovereignty.

But we could also say that it is thanks to the perception of the specific problems of the population and the isolation of that level of reality that we call the economy, that it was possible to think, reflect and calculate the problem of government outside the juridical framework of sovereignty.

Another important factor was that the model of the economy should be the family. Foucault says that as the focus of government became the population and not the individual subject, the family lost its status as the model and became simply an element of the population, one useful for achieving some of the goals of the government.

And then, of course, there was the need to develop better understandings of the world and thus better apparatuses of security.

Finally we get to the definition of governmentality. Foucault says that it means three things.

1. “…[T]he ensemble formed by institutions, procedures, analyses and reflections, calculations, and tactics that allow the exercise of this very specific, albeit very complex, power that has population as its target, political economy as its major form of knowledge, and apparatuses of security as its essential technical instrument.”

2. The pre-eminence of government as the dominant form of power, which has led to the development of a series of specific apparatuses … and the development of knowledges.”

3. The process by which the state of law in the Middle Ages was transformed into what Foucault calls the security state, the form of government we have in the West today.

Governmentality becomes the focus of the rest of the lectures.


1. I think the first definition is directly useful for understanding what Foucault is driving at. If so, why doesn’t he use a term like “art of government” or “governmental practice”? That leads me to think that the idea of mentality is important. There is a mental state that is conducive to the application of the security regime, both for the governor and for the governed. In the next lectures we take up the question of what that mentality might be.

2. In the second definition, Foucault uses the terms “knowledges” and “apparatuses”. Foucault’s method is described briefly in Section 4.3 of this article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

…[S]ystems of thought and knowledge (epistemes or discursive formations, in Foucault’s terminology) are governed by rules, beyond those of grammar and logic, that operate beneath the consciousness of individual subjects and define a system of conceptual possibilities that determines the boundaries of thought in a given domain and period.

There is much more at the link. Apparatus is described here.

Foucault generally uses this term to indicate the various institutional, physical and administrative mechanisms and knowledge structures, which enhance and maintain the exercise of power within the social body.

From the text, I would have described it as the institutional and operational forms of knowledges in a specific society, so the difference is the addition of last phrase relating to exercise of power. To that end, we get this description of “power-knowledge”

One of the most important features of Foucault’s view is that mechanisms of power produce different types of knowledge which collate information on people’s activities and existence. The knowledge gathered in this way further reinforces exercises of power.

That explains his method of looking at old texts. He is trying to see the forms that knowledge took in prior times as a way of understanding the past and then teasing out the changes in ideas from time to time. It helps to see this because the lack of empirical data in the text might put off those people who see “facts” as the only form of knowledge.

3. Knowledges change from time to time, and the first part of Foucault’s method is to understand those changes; that’s the historical or archeological part. Why they change is the more difficult problem. Foucault takes that up under the term genealogy. The Stanford site has this:

Foucault intended the term “genealogy” to evoke Nietzsche’s genealogy of morals, particularly with its suggestion of complex, mundane, inglorious origins—in no way part of any grand scheme of progressive history. The point of a genealogical analysis is to show that a given system of thought (itself uncovered in its essential structures by archaeology, which therefore remains part of Foucault’s historiography) was the result of contingent turns of history, not the outcome of rationally inevitable trends.

As a simple example, for a number of years, Keynesianism was the form of knowledge about the economy. Then it was replaced by neoliberalism. That’s the historical situation as I see it today. Why it changed, the genealogy of that change, is open to discussion. One strand of the discussion can be found in Philip Mirowski’s Never Let A Serious Crisis Go To Waste.

4. Foucault suggests that the family as a model for the economy had to be overcome and replaced by operations on the population as a whole. As we know, the idea of the family as model for both government and for government of the economy as a whole has not died out, but like most bad ideas will never die.

Security Territory And Population Part 3: Security As The Basis For Governing

In the second lecture in Security, Territory and Population, Michele Foucault takes up the problem of food scarcity; this follows his examination of the problems of criminal law and epidemics in the first lecture. Foucault discusses two ways of thinking about problems like scarcity. One idea is that they are misfortunes, in the classical Greek sense, obstacles for humans to overcome. In the other story, they are the result of “man’s evil nature”. These two ideas lead to the basic forms of governmental response. If problems arise from man’s evil nature, then solutions must limit freedom of action and control the exercise of that evil nature. If they are just inevitable facts of life, the ideal solutions come from allowing the greatest freedom to find and test solutions.

Through the mid-18th Century the second idea dominated in Europe. The reaction in France to the problem of food scarcity was an increasingly complex and detailed set of regulations and prohibitions, designed to limit and control the evil behavior that caused scarcity. Foucault identifies a second reason for the adoption of discipline besides man’s evil nature:

The objective is of course for grain to be sold at the lowest possible price so that peasants make the smallest possible profit and townspeople can thus be fed at the lowest possible cost and are consequently paid the lowest possible wages.

This idea is identified with mercantilism. Then in the mid-1700s, the French Physiocrats brought dramatic changes with their emphasis on freeing up trade in grain and letting markets deal with the problems of supply. The government began to allow greater freedom to the market for food. The role of the government shifted from control to supervision and occasionally some assistance to those damaged.

Foucault points out that the problem of scarcity is that it hit everyone in the territory, rich and poor, urban and country. The universality of pain is why scarcity was considered a curse. But with the new arrangement, the problem of universality of damage was ended. Those who could pay were safe, and the problem became one of dealing with those who could not pay. Under the new arrangement the problem of scarcity disappears as a problem for the population as a whole, and becomes a problem only for a comparatively few few.

This is another example of what we saw in the first lecture. The goal of security is to deal with the population as a whole, even knowing that some are not protected.

This lecture closes with a discussion of some of the differences between discipline and security as a theory of government.

1. Discipline encloses and contracts. Security opens and increases circulation, and increases the range of tools of production and control.

2. Discipline focuses on the smallest detail, while security looks at the end results, and ignores details that do not detract from the desired outcome.

3. Discipline divides everything into the categories of permitted and forbidden. Security tries to grasp the “effective reality” of events and processes, The point is to “respond 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.”

Security is connected to liberalism as a form of government. This last difference helps us see the nature of liberalism as a political ideal. It promises more freedom of action, more freedom of response to realty.

The idea of a government of men that would think first of all and fundamentally of the nature of things and no longer of man’s evil nature, the idea of an administration of things that would think before all else of men’s freedom, of what they want to do, of what they have an interest in doing, and of what they think about doing, are all correlative elements. A physics of power, or a power thought of as a physical action in the element of nature, and a power thought of as a regulation that can only be carried out through and by reliance oven the freedom of each, is, I think, something absolutely fundamental. It is not an ideology …. First of all and above all it is a technology of power….


1. The idea Foucault is grasping at in that last paragraph is almost defiantly abstract. It isn’t obvious how a government which considers first “the nature of things” and then works through and with “men’s freedom” is a “technology of power” in the normal usage of those words. It seems to me that the choice of outcomes to be sought constitutes the exercise of power. This suggests that by technology, Foucault means merely the choice of methods of reaching the goals of power. Technology of Power sounds more imposing, though.

2. The nature of security becomes quite clear in this lecture. Foucault says that government doesn’t try to provide absolute safety. Instead, it tries to provide an acceptable level of safety while allowing the greatest possible degree of freedom to individuals. He explicitly says that under a security regime people will die of hunger, they will die from inoculations, and there will be murders and property crimes. The government does not attempt to eradicate these problems. Foucault doesn’t even argue that the role of government is to ameliorate the ills visited on the few.

a. This is descriptive, not normative. Foucault doesn’t say what should be, merely what is.

b. Professional experts use this framework as the basis for their analysis. Obama apologist Paul Krugman is a good example. He points to various statistics that say that the economy is functioning well, including low unemployment and the stock market, and he argues heatedly that Sanders’ ideas for change would be bad. It’s certainly true that things are better for many, but Donald Trump is succeeding by arguing that it isn’t working for a huge group of people.

c. The experts who operate within this intellectual framework have consistently refused to deal with the left-behind, the superfluous people. That’s just as true of liberals as it is of the congenitally vicious conservatives. Worse, politicians constantly say that the first job of the politician is to assure our safety. Foucault says the President and all politicians are only going so far to provide that safety. And people will be killed by terrorists; and babies will be born microcephalic because the Congress thinks Zika research is not worth doing.

3. Foucault discusses the notion of man’s evil nature as the cause of social problems. This idea has its origins in Christian religious doctrine. For example, in response to plagues, Medieval Christians engaged in penitential rites seeking mercy from the Almighty. In Evil in Modern Thought, Susan Nieman says that this nonsense only died out in the aftermath of the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, a horrible disaster in which an earthquake started a fire driving people to the seashore just in time for a tidal wave to kill them. Malagrida, a Jesuit cleric, blamed the disaster on the sinful people of Lisbon, and demanded that they scourge themselves and fast and pray instead of rebuilding. The chief minister Pombal was able to get rid of him and focus on healing the sick, feeding the hungry and rebuilding that great city. According to Nieman, that was the beginning of the end of sin as an explanation of natural disaster.

4. Foucault dismisses the idea of man’s evil nature as the cause of social issues, but wait. There are plenty of aspects of human reality that cause social problems: religious hatred, racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, and a host of others. These are real parts of us as primates. We shouldn’t just dismiss man’s evil nature as a fantasy. It kills people too, and it isn’t obvious how government can or should or does respond in Foucault’s description.