Emergence of a Significant Phenomenon in the Nineteenth Century

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According to Michel Foucault, there has been an emergence of a significant phenomenon in the nineteenth century, which he called ‘power’s hold over life’ (1976:239). This contributes to a major shift in governmental power and how power is exercised over its population. This phenomenon has also occurred in different spheres of social and political life, which resulted in the State having a stronger hold over its population. 

Foucault (1976) formulated the expression of “governmentality’. Many theorists have drawn on this concept of governmentality, but each from different perspectives due to the concept being broad and implemented on a range of different spheres in the life of citizens. This essay will analyze how James C. Scott, in his book ‘Seeing like a State’ (1998) and Partha Chatterjee, in his book ‘Politics of the Governed’ (2004) draws on Foucault’s concepts in his text ‘Society Must Be Defended’ (1976).

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Foucault defines the State as an organization of relations of power which exists across the social body. The State’s rights are where they constitute a sovereign (1976:241). The State also uses certain mechanisms to exert power, without becoming power, it is rather a way in which power is exercised. For Foucault, the latter does not replace sovereignty. Similarly, Chatterjee draws from the Foucauldian framework by viewing the legitimacy and the mechanisms of the State grounded in the concept of sovereignty. Scott’s view on the State is to an extend unclear as he focuses on the State’s mechanisms to exert power but minimizes in what concept the State is grounded.

Foucault draws on the concept of governmentality, with many to follow in his footsteps. Foucault makes a clear distinction between the transformation in the political right in the nineteenth century, referring to the rights of individuals that protects their freedom from the government. There was a change in rights from the right of the sovereignty to ‘take life or let live’ to the new right to ‘make live and let die’ (1976:241). This is extrapolated by Foucault as a shift in the level of the mechanisms, techniques, and technologies of power in the second half of the eighteenth century which Foucault explores in his text. 

According to Foucault, this new form of power is applied to the living man, man-as-species (1976:242) and not to bodies – this technology addresses the multiplicity of men. The latter exercises power over biological processes such as birth rate, fertility, morbidity, productivity and illness (1976:243). Accordingly, Foucault calls this ‘biopolitics of the human race’ (1976:243). The biological prosses mentioned above are the objects of knowledge for biopolitics and the government tries to control it, arguably for the reason to combat endemics. 

Endemics refers to the duration and intensity of illnesses in a population, to not waste energy and not to reduce productivity which can lead to a fall in production (Foucault, 1976:243). The government intervenes at the level of data of medicine and introduces subtle mechanisms such as insurance, safety measures and savings (1976:244). Therefore, the power of the government is exercised on the biological aspect of the population as a whole, for the proliferation of life and to ensure longevity – consequently, Foucault calls this an ‘optimizing state of life’. The proliferation of life according to Foucault is enforced through the State but can also be found on the sub-state level (1976:250). This includes medical institutions, welfare-funds and insurance.

Biopolitics works on different mechanisms and technologies such as forecasts, statistical estimates and a range of measures (1976:246). Governmentality aims at achieving a state of equilibration or regularity among the population. A significant aspect of biopolitics, under the umbrella term governmentality, is the two sets of mechanisms on which it operates: 1) disciplinary and 2) regularity and these two are not implemented on the same level but are not mutually exclusive. The government can implement these mechanisms in different spheres of life, such as in the planned layout of cities and grid pattern estates which makes individuals more visible. 

The latter could possibly be enforced through the government as a form of policing and control of the estates. Furthermore, health-insurance systems (through state or sub-state level), patterns of saving-related inquiries, child-care, hygiene and education in all forms of life in which the government implements disciplinary and regulatory mechanisms (Foucault, 1976:251). Sexuality is an equally significant example of how the State exercises its power through biological processes (biopower). Sexual deviance creates irregularity according to the State and therefore, they intervene at the level of productivity – which has both disciplinary and regulatory effects of power. With the latter, is the rise in medicine in the nineteenth century, also an element of the State in which political intervention-technique can be exercised (Foucault, 1976:242).

Before considering the last element of governmentality, it is important to grasp the shift in the domain of power of the state which Foucault explores – a decline in sovereign power and a rise in disciplinary or regulatory power. As mentioned above, the new right of the State is ‘to make live and let die’. How can the biopolitics system, have a function of death, if it is centered upon the improvement of life? Foucault calls this a relatively long-standing term called ‘racism’ (1976:254). Racism, or in this case, State racism creates a break into the domain of life and the State exercises power and control – power and control over what must live and what must die (1976:254). 

Racism can be viewed as a distinction between races as some races are inscribed as good and others as inferior. The latter fragments the biological that is controlled through power (Foucault, 1976:255). Therefore, this power is exercised to improve one’s race and consequently, to create a healthier and purer race by ‘killing’ the inferior race – Foucault here makes reference to Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution (Foucault, 1976:256). According to Foucault, ‘killing’ does not always mean physical death but sometimes much worse such as ‘exposing someone to death, increasing the risk of death, political death, expulsion, rejection …’ (Foucault, 1976:256). Consequently, racism can be viewed as socio-political discrimination, with the goal to enhance the life of some, for killing is normalized and justified amongst the population.

James C. Scott draws on Foucault’s concept of governmentality and State power by arguing how the legibility of a population can be seen as a central problem for the State (1998:2). Before the nineteenth century, the state was to an extent ‘blind’ for not knowing anything about its citizens, their wealth, landholdings, location, and identity. What the pre-modern State needed at that time were a detailed map of its people and the topography. Therefore, the State now has a stronger hold on its subjects by intervening on a range of different spheres in their lives: illegible, local and social practices to be able to record and monitor it (1998:2). This stands in contrast with Foucault’s text, as he emphasizes the intervention of the State on a biological level: birth rate, longevity, mortality, etc.

Scott calls the change of governance in the nineteenth century the “state-initiated social engineering project” (1998:2). This project has four elements, which only two of them will be focused on with respect to Foucault’s text “Society Must Be Defended”, namely: 1) Administrative ordering of nature and society, 2) High Modernist Ideology.

Scott uses a Foucauldian framework but pays closer attention to the power of administration as an attempt to make a society more legible. As a result, Scott argues that the State arranges a population in ways that simplify state functions. The administration is used to more easily identify its people – therefore, managing and controlling society. This was done by making sure everyone has a surname and assigning a surname to those without one – strict rules applied to assure that people used their assigned surname (Scott, 1998:70). It can be argued that he draws on Foucault’s disciplinary mechanism – this could be directed to the individual and the population to make them more legible. 

The State can track someone’s location, land, age and property by just using their surname, this refers to Foucault’s concept of discipline – therefore, there is a form of surveillance and policing over the population. Drawing on Foucault’s disciplinary mechanism for designing towns, Scott argues that rationally planned layouts of cities are used to make the city more governable, prosperous and healthy (1998:59). The new legibility is enforced through revolutionized daily life as a form of controlling people. 

However, it was marked to be in the benefit of the population such implementing affective sewage systems, railways, greater circulation of air and water, goods and labor (1998:60). Similarly, Foucault and Scott argue that improving the environment will reduce the risk for epidemics (1998:62), therefore, contributing to the city’s economic and physical well-being. The productivity of laborers was accompanied by public-health concerns (economic problem), which is a concept drawn from Foucault’s text regarding biopower’s first objects of knowledge.

As we have seen in Foucault’s text regarding the improvement and proliferation of the population life, Scott’s second element, high modernism, takes on a similar form. According to Scott, the State uses its power to bring about change in the citizens’ habits, work, health and living pattern (1998:90). Both theorists agree that the radical focus on health-concerns is paired up with economic and political functions. Hence, improving the society’s health, skills, education, and productivity will according to Scott increase the State’s tax base and field its armies for national strength (1998:92) and according to Foucault increase production and revenue (1987:244). 

However, Scott differs from Foucault in terms of State racism and the phrase ‘let die’ of certain races or, in this case, population groups. Foucault agrees that for the improvement of life, certain races need to be eliminated to become purer and healthier. For this reason, the State deliberately exposes some population groups to the risk of death. Consequently, Foucault also draws from Darwin’s struggle for existence theory (Foucault, 1976:256). 

On the other hand, Scott argues that with the improvement of personal hygiene, diet, education, housing, etc.: is the working poor the first subjects of intervention (1998:92). In contrast with Foucault, the State’s objects of ‘intensive social engineering’ are the marginalized groups: mentally ill, criminals, etc. (Scott, 1998:92). The improvement of their daily lives was urban and public-health policies, funded by welfare agencies – regulations that proliferate life, occurs on State and sub-state levels (Foucault, 1976:250) (Scott, 1998:93).

Partha Chatterjee (2004) argues for the proliferation and improvement of a certain group of people, similar to Foucault’s concept of State racism. Furthermore, he draws the distinction between two ways in which the State views its people: 1) Citizens, Chatterjee refers to them as the ‘privileged’ people in society. They are right-bearing members and have close relations with the government, therefore active citizens in the democratic government 2) on the other hand, refer to the Population (2004:37). 

This group of people are viewed as subjects by the government and they are divided and reorganized by the government as targets of policy. In contrast with the first group, citizens, the population has little to no relation with the government. Chatterjee further calls the population group the ‘political society’, they are the poor and homeless. It can be argued that they are perhaps not viewed as “legible citizens”, such as Scott argues in his book, and they do not have relations with the State to be able to call on the State for housing etc. 

The population group is rather governed and control, which stands in contrast with the citizens, which Chatterjee calls the ‘civil society’. Civil society is the elite group that has legible claims to rights. Chatterjee argues that society is to an extent divided between the political society and the civil society. It becomes evident that they are forms of governmentality and power exercised upon the political society – they are not classified as citizens but are still controlled and managed.

It could be said that Chatterjee claims that there is certain disciplinary or regulatory mechanism centered at society to reach a point of “equilibration”. The latter argument is drawn from Foucault’s text ‘Society Must Be Defended’. It is however not fully directed at a planned layout of model towns, health-insurance, old-age pensions, childcare, etc., such as Foucault argues but rather State racism (Foucault, 1976:251). Therefore, Chatterjee highlights certain mechanisms to improve the well-being of a certain group of people and the “killing” of another group. 

The latter is a significant factor in Chatterjee’s book, as for the poor people are governed but receive no benefits of the state with regards to health-systems. This can be a result of the shift in the new right of the government to “let die” (Foucault, 1976:241). As Foucault has indicated the “killing” under the biopower system of a certain group as people – in this case, the political society – are not physically killing them, but rather a political death, rejected in society, being exposed to death or increasing the risk of death (Foucault, 1976:256). Chatterjee relies to an extent on Darwin’s theory of ‘survival of the fittest’.

The political society is indirectly denied access to welfare programs because the State does not have the means and resources to deliver it to the whole population (Chatterjee, 2004:40). The elite group, in other words, the civil society, receives attention from the State according to political expediency and voting rights (Chatterjee, 2004:40). Furthermore, the proliferation of political society was viewed by the elite circles as ‘mobs and criminals taking over politics’ (Chatterjee, 2004:47). 

According to Chatterjee, this resulted in the abonnement of changing the state of the backward society (2004:47). This is a form of governmentality and power of State to deliberately benefit civil society, with the end goal to ‘eliminate’ the political society. Consequently, this argument draws back to Foucault’s argument of ‘killing of the inferior’ to produce a healthier and purer life for superior races of the population group. The latter led to further corruption and irrational practices due to no improvement for the unprivileged political society. Chatterjee also agrees that the government does not view the marginalized society as “bodies”, rather as “convenient instruments for the administration of welfare” (2004:41), where he now differs from Foucault, as there is no focus on “man-as-specie (Foucault, 1976:243).

It can be seen from the above analysis that Scott and Chatterjee’s draw on Foucault’s concept of biopower and all three theorists writes out of the perspective of the State to produce more sufficient societies. This is either done through controlling man-as-specie and proliferating life by controlling biological processes or making a society legible through administration and improving the life of the working poor or on the other hand only improving the life of a certain group of people based on a class struggle. 

To an extent, there is a focus on creating a utopia, which is the perfect society, and this is done through major state intervention, called governmentality. The State uses its power to control, on different spheres, as a means to “improve overall life” – biologically, economically, socially and politically. Therefore, both Scott and Chatterjee draws on the Foucauldian framework as to how the State uses techniques and procedures to govern its people. Foucault realized the change in the nineteenth century from the power exercised on ‘man-as-body’ to ‘man-as-living being’. Consequently, there is a shift in focus from only disciplinary to disciplinary and/or regulatory mechanisms centered at the whole population – Scott and Chatterjee also incorporate this change in their work. 

Scott and Chatterjee draw from Foucault’s argument of the new right of the sovereign to ‘make life’. Firstly, Scott and Chatterjee build on Foucault’s concept of ‘making life’ as the proliferation of life. Scott claims that the State intervenes at the level of health care: hygiene, welfare programs, improvement of the environment, education, old-age pension, etc. for the whole population and, Chatterjee only for a certain group of people. Secondly, Chatterjee builds on Foucault’s argument of the right of the sovereign to ‘let die’. This is done through State racism. As a result, both Foucault and Chatterjee agree that the State intervenes using State power to create a purer and healthier life by eliminating the ‘enemy race’.

There is no shortage of disagreement that Scott and Chatterjee draw from Foucauldian framework of governmentality and from his text ‘Society Must Be Defended’. The transformation in the right of the sovereign to ‘make life and let die’, as well as techniques and procedures to govern are echoed in both theorists’ work – as a means to describe the power of the State and how the life of society is controlled, managed and regulated.

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