A matter of life and death

I’ve already written an essay on discipline and explained how it functions, giving a more than usual personal account on it. This essay is dedicated to another concept created by Michel Foucault. It is a related concept and while it may not pop up in my own research or in the research of others, I think understanding it is important as it is in part tied to discipline. This essay will focus primarily on Foucault’s works: volume one of ‘The History of Sexuality’ and the ‘Society Must Be Defended’, lectures held at the Collège de France in 1975 and 1976.

In part five of the first volume of the ‘History of Sexuality’ titled ‘Right of Death and Power over Life’ Foucault (135) first characterizes sovereign power, how the head of the body in question has the absolute power over the subjects. In other words, the sovereign, typically a king held the absolute and exclusive right of life and death. Foucault (135) elaborates how the subjects were required to protect the sovereign from external threats, that is other sovereigns who seek to sit on the throne or rule over parts of the territory held by the sovereign. In a way the sovereign’s body is not only the physical body, but extends to the state, or rather the territory held by the sovereign, typically referred to as the empire, the kingdom, the duchy, the county or the barony to name a few. In other words, the sovereign represented not only himself (or rarely herself) but also the sovereignty in question. The people were not the body of the state, the sovereign was. Going against the sovereign was going against the sovereignty as the two were conflated. Therefore Foucault (135) adds that:

“But if someone dared to rise up against him and transgress his laws, then he could exercise a direct power over the offender’s life: as punishment, the latter would be put to death. Viewed in this way, the power of life and death was not an absolute privilege: it was conditioned by the defense of the sovereign, and his own survival.”

What Foucault adds here is that while the sovereign did have the exclusive right to dish out a punishment, typically a capital punishment for the transgression against the sovereign, there was a rationale to it. The sovereign had no absolute right to do so, just because, even though I guess some sovereigns probably exercised that right arbitrarily (who’d be surprised if they did?). The right was rather, how to put it, a necessity. In any case, in the era of sovereigns individual life had little value. It could be taken away swiftly if you did not know your place and it was necessary for the sovereigns to do so in order to remain on the throne. What is important is, as Foucault (136) notes, that it was a mechanism of deduction or subtraction, taking away or levying goods and services as I’ve already discussed in earlier essays. Here it should be emphasized that this mechanism, the “right of seizure” as characterized by Foucault (136) culminated in life itself as “the right to take life or let live.”

Anyway, this essay is not dedicated to examining sovereign power but what came after. Foucault (136) states:

“Since the classical age the West has undergone a very profound transformation of these mechanisms of power. ‘Deduction’ has tended to be no longer the major form of power but merely one element among others, working to incite, reinforce, control, monitor, optimize, and organize the forces under it: a power bent on generating forces, making them grow, and ordering them, rather than one dedicated to impeding them, making them submit, or destroying them. There has been a parallel shift in the right of death, or at least a tendency to align itself with the exigencies of a life-administering power and to define itself accordingly. This death that was based on the right of the sovereign is now manifested as simply the reverse of the right of the social body to ensure, maintain, or develop its life.”

So what came after is not based on deduction or subtraction. As there is no sovereign, the body of the sovereign is no longer also the body of the state. Instead the body of the state is the people, the mass of individuals who used to be mere subjects to a sovereign and whose life could be taken away by the sovereign in order to protect that sovereign. It is in the interest of the individual not to be killed by the state. Therefore it’s hardly surprising that you won’t find that as a feature in the new system.

I think before moving on with the topic it’s worth going back to the ‘Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison’ for a moment. In it, summarizing works of historian Pierre Chaunu, Foucault (75) states:

“From the end of the seventeenth century, in fact, one observes a considerable diminution in murders and, generally speaking, in physical acts of aggression; offences against property seem to take over from crimes of violence theft and swindling, from murder and assault[.]”

Relying on Chaunu, Foucault (76) adds that:

“Crime became less violent long before punishment became less severe. But this transformation cannot be separated from several underlying processes. The first of these … was a change in the operation of economic pressures, a general rise in the standard of living, a large demographic expansion, an increase in wealth and property and ‘a consequent need for security'[.]”

Foucault (75) notes that while there was reform introduced, as advocated by ‘great reformers’, at the same time there was a shift in the type of crimes committed, from harm to body to harm to property, as elaborated by Chaunu. So, as there is increase in wealth and property, there is also an increase in crime related to wealth and property. Critical of the motivations of the reform movement, Foucault (80) adds that:

“The true objective of the reform movement, even in its most general formulations, was not so much to establish a new right to punish based on more equitable principles, as to set up a new ‘economy’ of the power to punish, to assure its better distribution, so that it should be neither too concentrated at certain privileged points, nor too divided between opposing authorities; so that it should be distributed in homogeneous circuits capable of operating everywhere, in a continuous way, down to the finest grain of the social body.”

In other words, Foucault argues that the reform had less to do with rights of men than it did with productivity and efficiency. He (80) rephrases this:

“The reform of criminal law must be read as a strategy for the rearrangement of the power to punish, according to modalities that, render it more regular, more effective, more constant and more detailed in its effects.”

What Foucault is on about here only makes sense. A better, or rather more fine tuned system with better coverage is needed to address the change in criminality, which coincided with the transition from feudal rights to absolute property, which resulted in what was considered a right in the feudal system to be understood as illegality, as noted by Foucault (85-86). In the feudal system, the superordinate extracted value from the subordinates, but in exchange they had certain rights that the superordinate had to respect. So, for example, peasants had rights to the land they cultivated, as long as they served their liege. In the new system, this was no longer the case as the land was deemed the absolute property of the owners who previously only held rights granted over the land, as acquired from yet another superordinate. Now, it may seem counterintuitive that this change warrants attenuated punishments against those who go against the property owners, but then again, if you think of it, someone has to work on the fields and in the factories and somehow I think it’s not going to be the property owners themselves. Foucault (92) calls this the “’economic’ rationality that must calculate the penalty and prescribe the appropriate techniques” (re)named as “humanity”. There is an apparent lack of utility in chopping of hands and heads. Those hands and heads are needed to work the fields and the factories. That said, you could not let things pass as if nothing happened either. The solution to this was and still is the prison, now also often referred to as ‘corrective services’. As the title suggests, Foucault’s ‘Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison’ is good reading for those interested in how this came to be.

Returning to the topic at hand, in the first volume of the ‘History of Sexuality’ Foucault (139) summarizes power of life starting in the seventeenth century as having two basic forms with two poles of development. He (139) characterizes the first pole:

“One of these poles – the first to be formed, it seems – centered on the body as a machine: its disciplining, the optimization of its capabilities, the extortion of its forces, the parallel increase of its usefulness and its docility, its integration into systems of efficient and economic controls, all this was ensured by the procedures of power that characterized the disciplines: an anatomo-politics of the human body.”

A detailed examination of this basic form can be found ‘Discipline and Punish’. I already wrote an essay on discipline, so I won’t repeat myself more here. He (139) elaborates the second pole:

“The second, formed somewhat later, focused on the species body, the body imbued with the mechanics of life and serving as the basis of the biological processes: propagation, births and mortality, the level of health, life expectancy and longevity, with all the conditions that can cause these to vary. Their supervision was effected through an entire series of interventions and regulatory controls: a biopolitics of the population.”

This second pole is what this essay is intended to focus on. Now, it’s important to realize that, as Foucault (139) insists, the two poles were not antithetical and instead “linked together by a whole intermediary cluster of relations.” So, they affect one another. Focusing on the second pole, Foucault (140-141) calls it biopower and argues that it was “an indispensable element in the development of capitalism[.]” He (141) then adds that biopower itself was not a sufficient catalyst for capitalism and that it was discipline that was required to achieve development:

“[I]t had to have methods of power capable of optimizing forces, aptitudes, and life in general without at the same time making them more difficult to govern. If the development of the great instruments of the state, as institutions of power, ensured the maintenance of production relations, the rudiments of anatomo- and bio-politics, created in the eighteenth century as techniques of power present at every level of the social body and utilized by very diverse institutions (the family and the army, schools and the police, individual medicine and the administration of collective bodies), operated in the sphere of economic processes, their development, and the forces working to sustain them.”

In other words, biopower in itself isn’t much, but accompanied by discipline it is. For example, alcohol or rather the use of it has been a hot topic for centuries in Finland and remains so. Without making this a for or against discussion, it can nevertheless be said that people know what alcohol is and there is no shortage of knowledge about it. It’s evident that consumption of alcohol is detrimental to human health, at least in large quantities. It is in the interest of the social body, the state, to intervene as its task is to administer life. That said if it lacks the means to do so, it cannot achieve this. Abolition by declaration was tried between 1919 to 1932, but it failed as the state lacked the apparatuses curb the smuggling of alcohol into the country. There have been changes to the availability of alcohol since the end of the abolition and the latest proposal to change the legislation has been resting on various desks for some year now for whatever reasons that have cropped up. Anyway, as stated, it is in the interest of the social body to prevent people from harming themselves, so it regulates the consumption of alcohol by restricting its availability to certain outlets that open at certain times of the day on certain times of the week, setting taxes on the products containing alcohol to disincentive buying and constantly reminding people of its harms. Achieving this requires state institutions: the authorities that regulate access to alcohol, namely Valvira, the National Supervisory Authority for Welfare and Health, and the alcoholic beverage retailing monopoly known as Alko (for product over 4,7% ABV), as well as the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health in general. The state also makes use of the educational institutions and the health care system at large. I would argue that the educational institutions are the most effective means of the state to grow and reinforce the sentiments against the consumption of alcohol as a harmful agent. While education is known for its transparency in Finland, there isn’t much the individual will do or can do alone to oppose what instilled in these institutions. In contrast, the alcohol retail monopoly of Alko is strikingly obvious and keeps infuriating people with its limited selection, limited opening times and high prices, not to mention its rather schizophrenic mission to curb the consumption of alcohol while functioning as its sole outlet (above 4,7% ABV).

This could also be applied to almost anything that pertains to health, for example the use of salt, fats, carbs, gluten or dairy to name a few. It is in the interest of the social body to steer their consumption, but it can only do it through institutions that discipline people to the desired outcomes. People who live longer can work longer. Similarly, people who are healthy can work more than those who aren’t. In addition, healthy people require less health services. It’s all win-win. What I mean here is that administering life makes it possible to optimize, to maximize efficiency by maximizing productivity and minimizing anything that affects productivity negatively. Quite charming really.

To summarize how discipline and biopower work together, Foucault (242) states in ‘Society Must Be Defended’, lectures held at the Collège de France in 1975 and 1976:

“This technology of power does not exclude the former, does not exclude disciplinary technology, but it does dovetail into it, integrate it, modify it to some extent, and above all, use it by sort of infiltrating it, embedding itself in existing disciplinary techniques.”

To differentiate them, he (242) adds that:

“To be more specific, I would say that discipline tries to rule a multiplicity of men to the extent that their multiplicity can and must be dissolved into individual bodies that can be kept under surveillance, trained, used, and, if need be, punished. And that the new technology that is being established is addressed to a multiplicity of men, not to the extent that they are nothing more than their individual bodies, but to the extent that they form, on the contrary, a global mass[.]”

Simply put, discipline has to do with the shaping of the individual, the individuation. In contrast, biopower has to do with the mass of individuals, or as Foucault (243) puts it, man-as-species.

To get back to the topic in the first volume of the ‘History of Sexuality’, Foucault (144) aptly summarizes what he means by biopower:

“[A] power whose task is to take charge of life needs continuous regulatory and corrective mechanisms. It is no longer a matter of bringing death into play in the field of sovereignty, but of distributing the living in the domain of value and utility. Such a power has to qualify, measure, appraise, and hierarchize, rather than display itself in its murderous splendor; it does not have to draw the line that separates the enemies of the sovereign from his obedient subjects; it effects distributions around the norm.”

I want to draw the attention here to the second sentence and the last part of the third sentence. Life now revolves around value and utility. It functions through norms. I think it should be emphasized that the value and utility is in relation to the social body, not the individual. What the individual thinks is valuable or of utility to him- or herself is of little importance. The state knows better what’s good for the individual than the individual. It’s not that the state is simply wrong or that it is motivated by malice. That’s just irrelevant to it. All it cares is administration of life, efficiency and optimization, for itself, not you. If it is good for you, then, well, good for you!

Now, you might be fooled to think that it’s all good, especially if it is good for you. At least one doesn’t have to fear for one’s life. Foucault (136-137) goes on to state the opposite:

“This death that was based on the right of the sovereign is now manifested as simply the reverse of the right of the social body to ensure, maintain, or develop its life. Yet wars were never as bloody as they have been since the nineteenth century, and all things being equal, never before did regimes visit such holocausts on their own populations.”

One word stands out there, but I’ll let Foucault (137) continue:

“Wars are no longer waged in the name of a sovereign who must be defended; they are waged on behalf of the existence of everyone; entire populations are mobilized for the purpose of wholesale slaughter in the name of life necessity: massacres have become vital. It is as managers of life and survival, of bodies and the race, that so many regimes have been able to wage so many wars, causing so many men to be killed.”

Now you might be wondering how can that be. Wasn’t killing humans out of the question? It is but that’s not what is at stake here. It’s about what Gilles Deleuze (92) explains in ‘Foucault’:

“[T]he survival of a population that believes itself to be better than its enemy, which it now treats not as the juridical enemy of the old sovereign but as a toxic or infectious agent, a sort of ‘biological danger’.”

As the function of the social body is to keep itself healthy, it must assure that threats are taken care of. Like a body it must repel and exterminate them. Think not only of other creatures attacking the body, but also those imperceptible ones invading the body, for example parasites such as viruses. To remain healthy, the body will have to protect itself by all means necessary. It will go as far as to dismember itself to save the body. The contagion must not spread. Paradoxically upholding life can lead to death, not on the level of the individual, but on the level of the mass and with an unprecedented efficiency, as elaborated by Foucault.

As I pointed out in the introductory paragraph, this is not directly linked to my own research, yet I felt like it is a topic worth elaborating due to the links to discipline and individuation, as well as the underlying argument that it’s all about efficiency and productivity. The irony is, as already discussed in a number of essays, that there is no one specific to blame for all this. It is what it is. It’s of course not only ironic, but also quite unsettling that people are in fact only obeying themselves, as Deleuze and Guattari (130) point out in the ‘A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia’. The broader topic of life is also an interesting subject, a worthy tangent to get lost in, but I did my best not to drift into that territory. Perhaps I’ll write more on that later, but I felt that it’s better to stay focused here.


  • Deleuze, G. ([1986] 1988). Foucault (S. Hand, Trans.). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Deleuze, G., and F. Guattari ([1980] 1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (B. Massumi, Trans.). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Foucault, M. ([1976] 1978). The History of Sexuality. Volume 1: An Introduction (R. Hurley, Trans.). New York, NY: Pantheon Books.
  • Foucault, M. ([1975/1976] 2003). “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975–1976 (D. Macey, Trans.). New York, NY: Picador.
  • Foucault, M. ([1975] 1995). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (A. Sheridan, Trans.). New York, NY: Vintage Books.