The Concept Of Governmentality

The concept of governmentality is a neologism used by Michel Foucault in his work on modern forms of political power. It is a term that combines government and ‘rationality’, suggesting a form of political analysis that focuses on the forms of knowledge that make objects visible and available for governing. In Foucault’s terms, governmentality refers to a distinctive modality for exercising power, one which is not reducible to ‘the state’. Governmentality is understood to work ‘at a distance’ by seeking to shape ‘the conduct of conduct’. This in turn implies that governmentality refers to a wide range of points of application, including fields of action not ordinarily thought of as political, such as medicine, education, religion, or popular culture.

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Governmentality is a notion that develops Foucault’s distinctive approach to the analysis of power relations. His work not only relocates power, dispersing it away from sovereign actions of centralised state agencies. It rethinks the type of action through which power is exercised (see Brown 2006b). In fundamental respects, the significance of the notion of governmentality for social theory turns on the interpretation of just what sort of theory of action this notion presupposes. The next two sections explore just where this significance lies.

Lemke (2002) argues that Foucault’s work on governmentality provides a means of understanding the relationships between knowledge, strategies of power and technologies of the self that can usefully augment narratives of neoliberalism. From this perspective, neoliberalism is understood as “a political rationality that tries to render the social domain economic and to link a reduction in (welfare) state services and security systems to the increasing call for ‘personal responsibility’ and ‘self-care’” (Lemke 2001, 203). On this understanding, governmentality is a concept that augments the political-economy approaches outlined in the previous section. For example, Ong’s (1999) account of the distinctive forms of governmentality deployed by ‘post-developmental’ states revolves around the assumption that various regulatory regimes manipulate cultural discourses to selectively make people into certain sorts of economic subjects consistent with the objectives of particular national strategies of accumulation. Jessop (2007, 40) has also argued that the convergence between

Marxism and governmentality studies follows from the mutually supportive emphases of the two approaches:

“while Marx seeks to explain the why of capital accumulation and state power, Foucault’s analyses of disciplinarity and governmentality try to explain the how of economic exploitation and political domination”.

This formulation acknowledges Foucault’s own observation that he was concerned with the ‘how’ of power, but assumes that this descriptive focus merely augments the explanatory project of Marxist political-economy. What is covered over here is a fundamental philosophical difference between these two approaches: the concept of governmentality implies an analysis that focuses on the description of practices instead of causes and explanations.

The Marxist and Foucauldian approaches are not necessarily as easily reconciled as it might appear. There are two main areas of difference between these approaches: their respective understandings of the state and of discourse (Traub-Werner 2007, 1444-1446). Political-economy approaches assume fairly static models of ‘the state’ and ‘the market’, and view their relationship in terms of contradictory movements of de-regulation and re-regulation; they also assume that ‘discourse’ is a representational concept, and focus upon how ‘discourses’ are theorized differentially ‘materialised’ in particular contexts. In contrast, governmentality refers to modalities of power that stretch far beyond ‘the state’; and ‘discourse’ is not a representational system so much as a distinctive concept of action, referring to the combination of technologies, means of representation and fields of possibility.

Despite the underlying philosophical differences between governmentality and Marxist political economy, Foucault’s notion has become an important reference point in recent debates about neoliberalization (Larner 2003, Barnett 2005). If there is such a thing as a neoliberal project, then it is assumed that it must work by seeking to bring into existence lots of neoliberal subjects (cf. Barnett et al 2008). Work on this topic assumes that extending the range of activities that are commodified, commercialized and marketized necessarily implies that people’s subjectivities need to be re-tooled and re-worked – as active consumers, entrepreneurial subjects, or empowered participants (e.g. Bondi 2005, Gokariksel and Mitchell 2005, Mitchell 2003, Mitchell 2006, Sparke 2006a, Walkerdine 2005). In this interpretation, the dispersal of power implied by the notion of governmentality is re-centred around a sovereign conception of state action, now able to reach out all the more effectively into all sorts of arenas in order to secure the conditions of its own (il)legitimacy.

The reduction of governmentality to a mechanism of subjectification marks the point at which Foucault’s historical, genealogical approach to issues of subject formation is subordinated to presentist functionalism of theories of neoliberalization. This reduction follows from the ambivalence around subject-formation in the formalized models of governmentality that have developed Foucault’s ideas. Rose’s (1999) analysis of “advanced liberal governmentality” argues that forms of ‘social’ government, of which the classical Keynsian welfare state stands as the exemplar, are being supplanted by the ‘de-socialisation’ of modes of governing. The rationalities of advanced liberal welfare reform “take the ethical reconstruction of the welfare recipient as their central problem” (ibid. 263). They seek to govern people by regulating the choices made by autonomous actors in the context of their everyday, ordinary commitments to friends, family and community. This rationality is visible in the proliferation of the registers of empowerment and improvement, in which both subjects participating in welfare or development programmes are geared towards transforming the relationships that subjects have with themselves (Cruickshank 1999, Li 2007).

In analyses of advanced liberal governmentality, these shifts in political rationality are the result of the efforts of a diverse set of actors pursuing plural ends. They do not reflect the aims of a singular, coherent neoliberal project pursued through the agency of ‘the state’. This emphasis is lost in the functionalist appropriation of governmentality to bolster theories of neoliberalization. This is compounded by the tendency in this work to presume that the description of political rationalities also describes the actual accomplishment of subject-effects. The vocabulary of theorists of neoliberal governmentality theorists is replete with terms such as ‘elicit’, ‘promote’, ‘foster’, ‘attract’, ‘guide’, ‘encourage’ and so on:

“The key feature of the neo-liberal rationality is the congruence it endeavours to achieve between a responsible and moral individual and an economic-rational actor. It aspires to construct prudent subjects whose moral quality is based on the fact that they rationally assess the costs and benefits of a certain sort as opposed to other alternative acts” (Lemke 2001, 201).

The point to underscore here is the emphasis on a rationality that endeavours and aspires to bring about certain subject-effects. Narratives of the emergence of neoliberal governmentality display little sense of just whether and how governmental programmes seek to get people to comply with projects of rule or identify with subject-positions. This is in large part because the Foucauldian approach to neoliberalism continues to construe governmentality in terms of a ‘politics of subjection’ (Clarke 2004d, 70-71). Such an assumption leads almost automatically to the conclusion that neoliberalism degrades any residual potential for public action inherent in liberal democracy (e.g. Brown 2003).

Equipped with the concept of governmentality, this sort of presentation of neoliberalism is able to avoid any serious consideration of what sort of action can be exercised on subjects through acting on them ‘at a distance’. The idea that governmentality is a distinctive mode of political rule which seeks to hail into existence its preferred subjects, which are then only left with the option of ‘resistance’, needs to be treated with considerable scepticism. Understood as a mechanism of subjection, governmentality is assumed to work through the operation of norms. However, Foucauldian theory is chronically unable to acknowledge the work of communicative rationalities in making any action-through-norms possible (Hacking 2004). Theories of governmentality consistently fail to adequately specify the ‘looping-effects’ between knowledge-technologies, practices, and subject-formation which are implied by the idea of ‘governing at a distance’ (Barnett 2001). This failure leads to the supposition that governmentality works through representational modes of subjectification rather than through the practical ordering of fields of strategic and communicative action. At the very most, the governmentality approach implies a probabilistic relationship between regulatory rationalities of rule and the transformations of subjectivities, mediated by the rules of chance (Agrawal 2005, 161-163). It might even imply a reorientation of analysis towards understanding the assemblage of dispersed, singular acts rather than on psycho-social processes of individual subjection (Barnett et al 2008).

The recuperation of governmentality as a theory of subject-formation, modelled on theories of interpellative hailing, overlooks the distinctive modality of action through which the Foucault addresses questions of subjectivity. Whereas liberalism and neoliberalism are understood in political-economy approaches as market ideologies, from the governmentality perspective liberalism (and by extension neoliberalism) should properly refer to a particular problematization of governing, and in particular the problematization of the task of governing free subjects. While a free market ideology might imply a problematization of free subjects, it does not follow that the problematization of free subjects is always and everywhere reducible to the imperatives of free market ideologies. Ong (2006) suggests, for example, a definition of neoliberalism in which long established technologies for administering subjects for self-mastery are only contingently articulated with projects directed at securing profitability. But this clarification still presumes that neoliberalism extends and reproduces itself primarily through a politics of subjection (see also Brown 2006a). It might be better to suppose that the distinctive focus in governmentality studies on modes of problematization should reorient analysis to the forms of what Foucault (1988) once called practices of ‘ethical problematization’. This would direct analytical attention to investigating the conditions “for individuals to recognize themselves as particular kinds of persons and to reflect upon their conduct – to problematize it – such that they may work upon and transform themselves in certain ways and towards particular goals” (Hodges 2002, 457). Two things follow from this reorientation. Firstly, it presumes that subjectivity is the product of situated rationalities of practice, rather than the representational medium of interpellative recognition (Hacking 2002). Secondly, it implies that the proposition that liberal governmentality seeks to construct self-regulating subjectivities should not be too easily reduced to the proposition that these subjectivities are normatively self-interested egoists (Du Gay 2005). For example, Isin (2004) argues that the distinctive style of problematizing contemporary subjects of rule is in terms of so many ‘neurotic subjects’ faced with various risks and hazards. One implication of this style of problematizing subjects is that state agencies continue to be the objects of demands to take responsibility for monitoring such neurotic subjects or securing them from harm.

In this section we have seen how the third of the approaches to conceptualising neoliberalism identified by Larner (2000), which appeals to the concept of governmentality, can be more or less easily subsumed into the prevalent political-economy interpretation. The assumption that governmentality is a concept that refers to the inculcation of certain sorts of mentality into subjects is the prevalent interpretation of governmentality in geography’s usage of this concept to bolster theories of neoliberalization, not least in the proliferation of work on neoliberal subjects. The marriage of political-economy and governmentality therefore generates a shared space of debate that defines state-of-the-art research into neoliberalization (Barnett 2005). While in the political-economy approach, discourses are treated as expressive of other levels of determination, in the governmentality approach political economic processes recede into the background; whereas political-economy approaches privilege class relations over other social relations, the governmentality approach reduces the social field to a plane of subjectification. But these differences converge around a shared assumption that ‘reproduction happens’: that subjects live out their self-governing subjection as ascribed by governmental rationalities, or subordinate classes live out their regulatory roles as ascribed by hegemonic projects of consent (Clarke 2004c). And so it is that ‘the social’ is reduced to the repository of a mysterious force of resistance waiting to be activated by the revelatory force of academic demystification.

Foucauldian analysis of neoliberal governmentality remains unclear whether either tradition can provide adequate resources for thinking about the practical problems of democracy, rights and social justice. This is not helped by the systematic denigration in both lines of thought of ‘liberalism’, a catch-all term used with little discrimination