Foucault’s Lectures on the Government of the Living: 1

I said I was going to post on he interviews appended to the lectures Foucault gave at the Catholic University of Louvain which have been recently published as Mal faire, dire vrai (English edition out in DEcember of next year). In the end ı don’t think the interviews are suitable for summary and discussion, as they move towards to many points discussed very briefly. So onto the second volume of Foucault lectures which have been published in the last few weeks.  This is Du governement des vivants [The government of the living], the date of the English edition has yet to be announced.  This s part of the series published by Editions de Seuil of the open lecture series Foucault gave a the Collège de France from 1970 to 1984.  Du gouvernment des vivants is based on the lecture course of the 1979 to 1980 academic session, but the earliest lecture is from January 1980.

The lecture of 9th January 1980 starts with a presentation of the scene in the palace of the Roman Emperor Septimus Severus.  The ceiling of the room in which he is speaking has stars painted on it, so it is something like the night sky.  Foucault links this with the beliefs of Severus about the basis of his rule.  Stars are used to predict the future, as symbols of necessity, and Severus claims that his rule is written in the sky, it is inevitable and cannot be resisted with any success. Severus’ own position as Emperor rests on luck not his own abilities and efforts.  His reign rests on truth of some kind. There is some resemblance with Oedipus, as represented in Sophocles’ play, Oedipus the King.  Oedipus rule and fall is based on a terrible hidden fate over which he has no control.  Severus’ references to the stars are a way of referring to a hidden fate.  He does not consider the possibility of  a revelation of a terrible fate, just the way that his reign is based in the truth written in the stars.

Foucault refers to a phrase, power-knowleddge, with which he is often associated, in order to explain his difference from it.  He does not favour the idea of a complete knowledge or power on the part of those who do have some power, and resists any idea of a dominant ideology which might be another way of thinking about power-knowledge.  He finds it misleading to think in terms of a complete concealment of reality, and domination of society, by a single way of thinking.

The thoughts of Severus about stars, destiny, truth and power are compared with the art of government as it appears in the early modern period and in the Enlightenment.  The example Foucault looks at form the early modern is that of the French 16th century writer Jean Bodin on politics.  As Foucault points out, Bodin was not only the author of a masterwork of Renaissance political theory (The Republic), but was also the author of Demonology, a guide to demons and witches which can be used as an aid in the arrest, torture and execution of supposed witches.  Foucault suggests this shows the continuing liaison between political power and claims to truth.  The art of government needs the knowledge of demonology just as much as knowledge of state craft in   narrow sense, if it is going to govern with success.  Foucault attacks the Marxist, or maybe just vulgar Marxist,  view that the persecution of supposed witches serves the purpose of creating a docile workforce for 19th century factories.  The text this most obviously refers to is the chapter on primitive accumulation of capital in Marx’s Capital, volume I, where Marx suggests that the increase in capital from the late Middle Ages onward, which results from the increased commercialisation of economic relationships in the countryside, the growth of national debt and financial capital, the enforcement of laws which undermine collective use of rural resources  by strict notions of private property, has the purpose of creating both investment funds for industrialisation and a workforce willing to take on work in new industries. Foucault presumably means to criticise its use by come people rather than to dismiss it completely.  

The relations between claims about truth as the basis of government continue into the work of the Physiocrat (18th century market economists in France) François Quesnay.  Foucault takes this forward not in relation to political economy, or market oriented liberalism, but in relation to Henri de Saint-Simon a master thinker of French rationalist statism. It should also be said that a Saint-Simon Foundation created by the historian François Furet in 1982, and which lasted until 1999, was  liberal leaning, particularly in economic terms.   Furet himself was a major figure in the revival of French liberalism.  We cna understand that relation between liberals and the name of Saint-Simon when look at Foucault’s analysis which looks at Saint-Simonism as a continuation f the Quesnay style of  belief in truth as the basis of policy, which attains utopian dimensions in both Quesnay and Saint-Simon.  For Foucault liberalism is a outcome of the art of politics, or what he refers to more as governmentality from the 18th century onwards.  There is a tension here between a diagnosis of liberalism as an expression of something much more general, and liberalism as the most appropriate outcome of the art of government and governmentality.

Foucault moves onto two 20th century diagnoses of truth and politics, in the contrasting figures of Rosa Luxembourg and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.  Luxembourg, early 20th century advocate of revolutionary Marxism who died during a failed revolution in Germany after World War One said that capitalism would not survive a day if everyone knew the truth.  Solzhenitsyn, novelist and dissident under Soviet communism who went into exile in America until the end of communism, a  man of ultra-conservative views, argued that Soviet socialism-communism worked on the basis that everyone knew the truth (with the implication of the truth behind state pro panda).  The truth everyone knew about the communist totalitarian system was that it used force and could not be safely criticised, and this force was the basis of its power, not truth in any other sense.  Of these two radical opposites, Foucault seems closest to the Solzhenitsyn view, particularly we consider the strong line of criticism of the Soviet bloc that he had.  However, we should see him as somewhere between Luxembourg and Solzhenitsyn as both put too much emphasis on some complete sharing of truth behind ideological disguises, a reduction of governmentality to some mixture of crude violence and crude ideological manipulation.

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3 thoughts on “Foucault’s Lectures on the Government of the Living: 1

  1. Thank you for blogging on this. My french is not good enough to read the original but I was very curious about this volume.

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