Liberal and Libertarian Foucault II: The Bosphorus

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog

Michel Foucault

Security, Territory, Population. Lecture Two. 18 January 1979

To tell the truth, this structuring function of space and territory is not something new to the eighteenth century. After all, what sovereign has not wanted to build a bridge over the Bosphorus or move mountains? Again, we need to know the general economy of power within which this project and structuring of space and territory is situated. Does it involve marking out a territory or conquering it? Is it a question of disciplining subjects, making them produce wealth, or is it a question of conquering something like a milieu of life, existence, and work for a population?

(page 29)

The Bosphorus stands here for chance which government attempt to overcome. For Foucault, a major feature of the period from the 16th to the 18th centuries is the growing awareness of chance, and the need for an art of government which can master it. This is embedded in the rise of commercial life, and its analysis through ‘economy’. and with the growth of interest in chance and the analysis of probability. Foucault notes the 16th century rise of books of government, advice on how to control chance in affairs of state. Machiavelli’s The Prince is taken as the main example. Foucault seems to ignore the republican aspect of Machiavelli, which would have suited his argument perfectly well. He treats Machiavelli’s book as guide on how the Prince can maintain, and extend his estate. What he fails to note, as far as I can see, is that Machiavelli is also referring to a notion of public interest which the Prince ought to serve, as well as failing to note Machiavelli’s wish to recreate Roman republicanism. This fits with Foucault’s analysis because he sees the move to state control as fitting with the growth of some forms of freedom. The interest in state control for thinkers like Francis Bacon and thinker-statesmen like Richelieu, or even writers of tragedy like Jean Racine, arises from the growing sense of uncontrollability. The people are always inclined to rebel, as is the upper class. Attempts to subordinate the economy to state edicts, as in price controls on wheat, prove to be counter productive: enforcement of a lower price for wheat reduces supply and causes starvation.

In the reference to bridging the Bosphorus, Foucault may have the story of the Persian King Xerxes, recorded by Herodotus, bridging the Hellespont (Turkish Straits) during his attempted invasion of Greece. Xerxes succeed in the building the bridge, but not in subduing Greece. The point of the permanent desire to bridge the Bosphorus (which now has two bridges), is that dramatic efforts to master nature may sometimes produce great results, but this may create an illusion of complete mastery of fortune. Xerxes could not conquer Greece, and the mighty absolute monarchs of early modern Europe could not guarantee sufficient bread for all by attempting to conquer the forces of markets and prices

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