Friday, November 9, 2012

Political discourse and governmentality in Foucault

Political discourse and governmentality
One of the numerous topics that interested the French philosopher Michel Foucault was the development of modern government and how they governed increasingly diverse populations.  To study this development, Foucault developed a theory of Governmentality.  Governmentality is the art of government, and particularly in liberal governments where “the 'art' of liberal government was to govern without governing society, or the development of reflexive governance - a rationality where the ends of policy also become the means” (Raco 2003:76).  Foucault sees the purpose of liberal governments as ”managing the behavior of free persons and securing the basic conditions of their freedom by means of a variety of governmental practice” (Raco 2003: 76).  Foucault is famous for his method of discourse analysis, an approach that can easily be applied to the recent Presidential election in the United States, a modern liberal democracy.  One of the major stories coming out of this election has been the success of modern political science to predict the outcome of the election, and the accuracy of pre-election polling for those predictions.  Foucault wrote heavily about the discourse of social science, and the concept of problematization. The political science discourse, due in part to their success with data collection and prediction, have theorized that there is a problem with one of the political parties (the republican party) ostracizing a large part of the diverse electorate.  This goes back to Foucault’s analysis of modern governance having to account for diversity in their population, through self-governance, which political science has used to problematize the discourse of particular political ideologies.  Modern liberal governments do not govern in a totalitarian direct way; instead they govern indirectly by creating a political discourse of self-governance. Governments create a discourse about how things can be done and about what is important. Inherent to this discourse is power, that government officials, like the president, has the exclusive power to carry out certain functions defined in the political discourse.  In the political discourse governments define what is right and what is wrong, which Foucault looks at, coming from the philosophical tradition of Nietzsche, as a genealogy through time.  One of the crucial points of Foucault’s work is not that knowledge is power, but that power defines what knowledge is.  In the context of this picture of the polling center at Stony Brook University for example, government has defined, through its political discourse, who can and cannot vote, and who can run for office, and when/where people can vote.  Furthermore in the debates and political advertising and discussion, Government, along with various institutions like media, have defined what issues are important for people to think about.  The focus on the economy in his past election was as much due to the media’s focus on that issue then the individual voter’s interest.  Government, to Foucault, tells the individuals it governs how to live through not only their political discourse, but by setting rules for how other institutions create a discourse.  For example, while liberal governments usually provide political rights to its subjects, the very definition of what subjects can do implies that there are things the subjects cannot do.  While a paper can create a discourse for why a particular political ideology is superior, the government does not allow for institutions to push for radical measures, like revolution.  Foucault in his late career argued that this political discourse educated the subjects about what can and cannot be done, which is itself a form of governance.  By creating this “body of practices” of what individual subjects can and should do, like duties of citizenship, modern liberal government rules through the subject’s self-governance, which is based on that political discourse.  (Luxon 2008:379)  The point of this self-governance is that government cannot in a totalitarian way keep direct control over its subjects at all time; the institution of government cannot be all seeing and therefore cannot always punish people for breaking its rules.  However, by instilling, socializing, the values of its discourse into individual subjects the government rules through the fear of breaking the law, making subjects govern themselves as to not break those laws defined through the political discourse.  The very definition of a free society requires there to be a concept of a not free society, but this free society is created by controlling the discourse and definitions of society via government.  Foucault points to this as the contradiction of the modern liberal state.  (Luxon 2008)  Foucault’s theory of governmentality is a useful way to look at how modern governments can function, in ever diversifying and growing societies and functions as a strong critique for modern political thought.                 


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