‘For millennia, man remained what he was for Aristotle: a living animal with the additional capacity for a political existence; modern man is an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being in question.’
Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality 1: The will to knowledge.
The concept of biopolitics marks the introduction of a new element within judicial power and disciplinary techniques. The theory of sovereign right functioned on the basis of the pre-determined and complementary notions of individual and society, which, at the outcome of the sovereign constitutive process, are transformed into the contracting individual and the social body constituted through the contract (whether voluntary or implicit).
Much of the literature that still constitutes the mainstream and hegemonic paradigm in the teaching of political theory in our times, adopts notions of the workings of power such as sovereignty, right, duty and contract as the foundation of any possible reflection and advancement on the idea of government and its exercise.
In Survelleir et punire Foucault began to shake the foundations of the political theory of sovereignty with his notion of disciplines. Unlike the judicial power of sovereign right, these were concerned with the practice of power on the individual and his body.
He was later to complement the idea of discipline with that of biopower and biopolitics. The novel aspect introduced in the analysis of power by the notion of biopolitics is that the latter does not deal with society (as the judicial body defined by law and the contract), nor with the individual-body. What emerges with the introduction of biopower as a practice is the notion of a social body as the object of government. It is the notion of population: biopolitics is concerned with population as a political and scientific problem, as a biological issue of the exercise of power. Biopower does not act on the individual a posteriori, as a subject of discipline in the diverse forms of rehabilitation, normalisation and institutionalisation. Rather, it acts on the population in a preventive fashion. Its legitimacy stems from its preoccupation with optimising life chances, and biopower operates through surveys for the prevention of epidemics and scarcity. Its government works through management and the regulative mechanisms that are able to account for aleatory and ‘unpredictable’ phenonema on a global scale, by determining an equilibrium and keeping events within an acceptable average. Biopower is not just discipline but regulation on a global scale, it is ‘the power to make live. Power won’t make die, but it will regulate mortality.’
As Foucault puts it, the series of body-organism-discipline-institution is eventually juxtaposed and substituted by the series of population-biological processes-regulatory mechanisms-state, even though some elements such as the police are part of the first and the second, both of discipline and security.
Foucault's definition of biopower and discipline is intertwined with an analysis of the implications of applying knowledge across society in the formation, or the 'moulding' of subjectivities. The genealogies carried out within the framework of the valorisation of the positive force of power aim to show that the productivity of power is realised precisely through the policies that allow for the formation of the individual (through the disciplinary normalisation plans) and population (through the biopolitical mass scale interventions). Liberalism needs the police to reduce government.
What appears to be the almost physical chain of action and reaction that characterises his notion of power/resistance challenged the idea that it is possibile to transcend one's position by positing a challenge from the outside. In biopolitics this is impossible since there is no outside. In “Un systeme fini face a une' demande infinie” Foucault states that discipline is only one mode of 'expression' for power. The system has changed to incorporate the new needs of a post welfare state/pastoral power. From surveillance on criminality we have moved towards the control of the population. This is due to the endorsement by the system of resistances and its adoption of their techniques, which creates a new function for power. It is the state of 'executive power' or policing, monitoring, or recording that constitutes the excess which is the reality of the norm. This political state of permanent exception is tightly linked to the ideology of governmentability and of security. The way a society of control functions is no more based on the individuation and subjectifying of individuals as 'types', it doesn't work on individuation of the marginalised finalised to their subsequent 'inclusive rehabilitation'. Statistics now come to dissect the individual and fragment it to its smallest components. This is most evident in the division of labour into skills and of the body into genes. Hence, control can be exercised in virtue of its own creation 'positive' determination of multiple subjectifications within the same individual. The role of law itself changes with it in so far as instead of functioning as the arbiter or regulator of incompatible interests, it abdicates its ambition to social integration and with the crisis of welfare it is forced to reduce its scope to that of only representing negotiable interests whilst neutralising and silencing the rest. The relations between state of exception and biopolitics are theorised by Agamben in his Homo Sacer series. Recently, Negri, Lazzarato and other theorists of the post-operaista tradition have inscribed a difference in the two notions of biopoower and biopolitics. Dissatisfied with Foucault's alleged pessimism, they established biopolitics to be the subversive counterpart to biopower. For more on this, see Lazzarato's article below.