Month: April 2015

The “How” and “Why” of Power: From Marx to Foucault to Power Today

Power relationships are the foundation of culture and society. For centuries, philosophers, cultural scholars, social scientists, political theorists, and others have been trying to capture the nature, function, and mechanisms of power that structure the dynamics of social life. In this paper, I address the concept of power in terms of the ways it has been theorized by two of the world’s most influential thinkers: Karl Marx, who never developed an explicit theory of power, but whose work implicitly, constantly, addresses it, and Michel Foucault, whose work explicitly attends to the question of power, and whose theorization of it is possibly the most well-known and widely used today.

If the quotations included in the following pages feel somewhat unbalanced, it is because we cannot ask Marx directly what he would say about power, and about Foucault, while we can look directly to Foucault for answers. This paper, then, draws more heavily from Foucault’s words when he discusses Marx – whether explicitly in interviews or implicitly across his oeuvre – than from Marx himself. From this position, I think, we can identify ruptures, tensions, and connections that will help to give us a sense of the kind of relationship between Marx and Foucault, and their ideas about power.

What is Power?

Before delving into an analysis of power a la Marx and Foucault, I will first lay out the basic assumptions each makes about the fundamental nature of power. These assumptions color each of the topics that will be developed throughout the rest of the paper.

Marx, whose historical materialism launched an attack on German idealism, attempted to bring power out of the sphere of ideas (where the German philosophers were always “fighting against phrases” (Marx & Engels, 1970, p. 41)) to address its relation to the material underpinnings of everyday life. As Marx and Engels put it, “It has not occurred to any one of these philosophers to inquire into the connection of German philosophy with German reality, the relation of their criticism to their own material surroundings” (Marx & Engels, 1970, p. 41). Power, for Marx, was not a religious/philosophical/political dogma, but a resource. And as a resource, power is always in limited supply. It is therefore concentrated among certain actors and groups – namely, the ruling class and the State – who wield it over an unsuspecting (proletariat) population. Its instrumentation is always captured by economic processes, and the logic of its distribution is the accumulation of capital (Marx, 1976). Although the origins of power are material, its effects are less so, since power (conceived as the control of economic processes) translates into the control over ideas. Ideas feed back into material reality, where they are implemented in everyday life as ideologies that lure the working class into a false consciousness, thereby ensuring their subordination. Power, for Marx, is negative, insofar as its effects are repressive (the loss of freedom). Power obscures “truth.” A counter-attack by the working class subject, which would reveal the “truth” that power hides from view, is only possible once the scales have been lifted from his eyes.

Critiques of Marx often point to his somewhat narrow focus on the State as the ultimate wielder of power. Such critiques suggest that this focus came at the expense of recognizing the ways in which power is dispersed and exercised within the nooks and crannies of everyday life (rather than being concentrated and in limited supply). Foucault’s critique of Marx certainly falls along these lines. For Foucault, power is not a resource, but a relation. It is never “held” nor “owned” but is strategically exercised. Furthermore, the logic of its distribution does not always imply the accumulation of capital. Although like capital, power is distributed unevenly, it exists and is exercised throughout the social body. And wherever there is power there is always counter-power. Perhaps most importantly for Foucault, power has positive effects. It is not repressive, but incredibly productive. Its instrumentation, moreover, is highly specific, and cannot be captured by economic processes alone.

While Marx refers to economic processes in capitalism as the sole technology of power, Foucault identifies at least two political technologies of power, which he refers to as disciplinary power and bio-power. Taking for the moment the concept of disciplinary power, we can identify some fundamental points of convergence between Marx and Foucault in their otherwise distinct analyses of power.

Capital and Discipline: The How and Why of Power

In analyzing disciplinary power, Foucault saw a kindred spirit in Marx. He draws heavily upon Marx’s discussion from Capital concerning the disciplinary practices necessary for the development of the productive factory worker. In this context, Foucault recognizes a Marx who acknowledged the infiltration of power outside the specific domain of the State, which could be exercised within and across differing institutions where, importantly, it lays hold on the body.

Moreover, Foucault articulates that the rise of disciplinary power as a central feature of modern society went hand in hand with the development of the capitalist mode of production, which was a necessary condition for the management of a rapidly growing population – and thus, a bigger labor force – in a burgeoning factory system. To manage its workers properly, the space of the factory had to be organized in such a way that guaranteed the docility and utility of its workers: “The growth of a capitalist economy gave rise to the specific modality of disciplinary power, whose general formulas, techniques of submitting forces and bodies, in short, ‘political anatomy,’ could be operated in the most diverse political regimes, apparatuses or institutions” (Foucault, 1977, p. 221). This is to say, the productivity of disciplinary power – which produces docile bodies – is intimately related to the need for controlling human subjects under capitalism, by regulating the movements of their bodies in time and space. With that said, however, Foucault is also quick to point out that understanding the material bases of disciplinary power is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for analyzing power. While examining the relations of production in capitalism might tell us why disciplinary power operates, it does not tell us how.

The why of Marx and the how of Foucault point to another significant difference in approach each takes to understanding power. At the risk of sounding too simplistic, we might characterize this difference as the relative uniformity of the former and specificity of the latter. Foucault saw it this way, when he addressed Marx in his “Two Lectures” by asking, “Is power always in a subordinate position relative to the economy? Is it always in the service of, and ultimately answerable to, the economy? …Or, on the contrary, do we need to employ various tools in its analysis…” (Foucault, 1976, p. 89).

What Foucault’s question points to is the basis for his analysis of power as micro-politics. Foucault recognized that by remaining fixed on the economic landscape of power, Marx risked overlooking its specificities. Foucault wants to emphasize that an analysis of power must attend to details, an idea which is conveyed in his use of the term “micro-politics.” Micro-politics implies an analysis of power that works from “the bottom up.” Such an analysis must then begin by examining its most minute mechanisms and intricate procedures and the ways in which these operate directly on individual bodies. Micro-politics, for Foucault, is power working at a level of extraordinary detail; it is “the conduct of conduct” (Foucault, 1977).

Consciousness, Power and Knowledge

In Marxist thought, the material basis of ideas provides an answer to the question of where consciousness (and also culture) comes from. Since material life determines, or at least ‘conditions’ social life, the primary direction of social explanation is always from material production to social forms, and thence to forms of consciousness. Put another way, ideas become ideology once they are integrated into our everyday activity, where they become normalized and naturalized (and thus invisible). Ideas become ideology becomes culture. According to Marx, it is the ruling class which has the power to disseminate its ideology to the working class proletariat; thus, it is also the ruling class which has the power to shape consciousness and society as a whole. As Marx famously put it, the ruling ideas are those of the ruling class (Marx & Engels, 1970). If you want to change culture, you must first dismantle the social and material base that conditions it since, after all, “The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships…” (Marx & Engels, 1970, p. 64).

Knowledge, then, is understood by Marx as a resource used in the services of power, which is shaped by the political and professional interests of those who control the economic means of production. Naturally, the maintenance of this system of production – the different roles human beings play within it, the hierarchical class relations it reproduces – is the most fundamental interest of the ruling class. This being the case, knowledge serves a social function of legitimation. It functions to mask the manipulation of human beings to ensure the stability of the social order and the accumulation of private profit for the upper class. As Marx understands it, the relationship ideas (or knowledge) have with power hinges on a false promise, which is the basis of his ideology critique. Power manipulates human beings, masks reality, and therefore compromises knowledge’s claim to truth.

Marx’s conception of ideology thus reduces the relationship of power and knowledge to a question of class power and class interests, and situates it in a binary of truth/falsity. But is it possible to think about knowledge as something other than “true” or “false”? Foucault certainly thought so, and we can turn to his writing about the co-constitutive relationship of power and knowledge as a way of moving out of this binary, toward a theory of power that is generative, that makes things thinkable and do-able.

In Foucault, power/knowledge refers to the co-constitutive capacities of knowledge and power to produce apparatuses of control, regulation, and production. Knowledge, then, is not simply descriptive; it is productive. What it produces, among other things, are normative categories (i.e., sick/healthy), prescriptions for proper conduct, and relations of power (i.e., patient/doctor). Power and knowledge come together in Foucault’s notion of discourse. Discourse, as something immaterial, appears initially as anti-Marxist. And in a sense it is, since it does not necessarily revolve around empirical reality. The use Foucault puts to discourse, however, is primarily to reveal the materiality of power relations within discrete sites – the prison, the hospital, the mental institution, and so on, which is to say, it has a materiality. Discourses, like science, medicine, or psychology, assert their monopoly over truth claims, which also gives them power to determine the face of “reality” at a given moment. This is not incompatible with a Marxist conceptualization of ideology, except that it does not necessarily refer back to a prevailing mode of economic production.

In Foucault, power/knowledge and the way they come together in discourse, are not repressive (as is power in Marx) but extraordinarily productive. As previously mentioned, power is that which makes things do-able and thinkable. Even more, power is that which “makes” individuals.

The Subject of Power

Maybe the most certain of all philosophical problems is the problem of the present time, and of what we are, in this very moment. – Foucault, “The Subject and Power” (1983/2003)

In this section, I will attend to the ways in which Marx and Foucault theorize the relationship of individual subjects to power, and vice versa. To do so, I will begin with Marx’s concept of “fixed capital,” which might help us understand the formation of “the subject” under capitalism.

In Marx, the formation of subjects is always tied to the development of a capitalist system, and cannot be extracted from the relations of production that structure individuals’ experience of the world (Marx, 1973; 1976). In Gundrisse, Marx uses the term “fixed capital” – a term he generally associates with machinery, factories, and other investments in the means of production – to refer to subjectivity (Marx, 1973). In particular, he refers to the subjectivity of the worker, whose concrete essence is defined in terms of his labor. Gradually, as man labors, his worker’s subjectivity develops alongside the progression of capital until he is himself incorporated into its machinery and becomes a replaceable “cog in the machine.”

The capitalist system is capable of transforming man’s essence precisely because it is what transforms labor into surplus value, into profit.  Because labor, for Marx, is part of the sphere of exploitation, subjection is a necessarily exploitative process. Yet again, we see the power that “makes” subjects working through an ideology of individuality, a “false promise” that alienates the working subject from his labor power, from other workers, and from himself.  This conception of the subject is negative: It hinges on the repression of an identity whose truth has been subsumed in machinery. This negative conception of the subject of power stands in marked contrast with the subject in Foucault, whose relation to power is positive, in the sense that his “truth” is not repressed, but rather generated through the different technologies of power. Despite this fundamental dissimilarity, there is a resonance between Marx and Foucault on the topic of labor, which both thinkers – albeit in different ways – understand as a catalyst, which forges a powerful link between systems of power and the subjects they address. I will say more about Foucault’s utilization of labor at the end of the section, but first some contextualization is in order.

It is perhaps surprising that Foucault did not see power, but rather the subject as his main scholarly project[1] (see Foucault, 1983/2003). But if we look closely at the two “technologies of power” that divide the first and second half of his writing, we see that the most profound task of each is the production of particular kinds of subjects. In Discipline and Punish (1977) and the rest of his work that precedes The History of Sexuality (1978), Foucault identifies a technology of power he calls “disciplinary power,” which (as discussed previously) generates norm-governed “disciplinary subjects,” whose subjection is ensured through their production as obedient and efficient “docile bodies.” Beginning with The History of Sexuality (1978), Foucault identifies a second technology of power which developed within, and ultimately transformed, disciplinary power. This “new” power is what Foucault terms bio-power.

Bio-power and disciplinary power differ in the objects each addresses: While discipline addresses the individual subject through power exercised directly on the (corporeal) body, bio-power takes as its central object the social body (Foucault, 2003). Bio-power belongs to system of government that addresses the population body (rather than the body of individuals) vis-à-vis the biology of individual bodies. In doing so, it is able to manage social risks (which would formerly have been responsibilities of the State – preventing illness, unemployment, poverty, etc.) by re-casting them as individual problems of self-care.

We can see how Foucault echoes a Marxist emphasis on labor when he discusses bio-power and the “making” of bio-political subjects. Contra to Marx’s worker subject, bio-political subjects are not “cogs in the machine.” They are active participants (and not un-knowingly) in the process of their own subjection. As such, subjection is not imposed on them from above, but through themselves. Put another way, the bio-political subject is a self-governed individual. She governs herself through forms of regulation and modulation that Foucault refers to as technologies of the self (Foucault, 2008). Taking an example from medicine, we can see how technologies of the self (i.e., birth control) function as conduits through which social problems (population control) become individual problems (unwanted pregnancy/motherhood), which necessitate a kind of labor that the bio-political subject is obligated to perform (i.e., taking her pills on time, every day). Her labor, which has been recast in terms of self-care, ensures her continued (self-) subjection (Foucault, 1984/1986).

Power Today

By way of concluding, I want to acknowledge a third approach to power that borrows from and builds on Marx and Foucault, and which develops an analysis of power today. In Communication Power (2009), Manuel Castells develops an alternative theory of power that focuses on the ways in which power moves through multi-media communication networks which are, for him, the dominant guarantors of culture and meaning in our lives. As Castells explains, “…all networks of power exercise their power by influencing the human mind predominantly (but not solely) through multimedia networks of mass communication. Thus, communication networks are the fundamental networks of power making in society” (Castells, 2011, p. 774).

It goes without saying that such an approach to power, which takes communication as its primary object, is absolutely essential for communication scholars, cultural studies practitioners, and anyone who writes about media, politics and/or popular culture. Neither Marx nor Foucault attended to this dimension. Marx, because he could not possibly have envisioned it. Why Foucault neglected communication networks, however, is more difficult to understand – particularly when we consider his emphasis on discourse. It seems to me, and I’d venture to guess that Castells would agree, that the texts which circulate through communication networks, are in and of themselves discursive sites; they exercise a powerful influence in the production and circulation of knowledge.

Indeed, Foucault has been criticized for his over-reliance on discourse, which led him to ignore the more coercive and violent forms of power exercised by the State.[2] Castells’ analysis of communication power attends to this gap, as well as to the gap left by Marx, who focused exclusively on the economic processes that give rise to power. Unlike Marx, Castells’ analysis extracts power from economic processes and re-situates them in social processes. And unlike Foucault, Castells acknowledges a mechanism of power that belongs to State, which is exercised through coercion and intimidation in the name of private and political interests. This mechanism is what he terms “intimidation power.” Intimidation power exists alongside another – far more decisive – mechanism of power that belongs to discourse, spreads through communication networks, and is exercised through persuasion. Castells uses Foucault’s term and refers to this second mechanism of power as “disciplinary power” (Castells, 2009). But why is this this second mechanism understood as being more decisive than the first? Castells’s answer is simple: Power that moves through communication networks has a unique ability to shape the human mind, in part because it is accessible by nearly every individual in every society, and in part because it is tightly controlled by a concentrated media elite whose discourses it tends to reproduce. There is a Gramscian slant to this idea: “Coercion alone,” as Castell explains, “cannot stabilize domination. The ability to build consent, or at least to instill fear and resignation vis-à-vis the existing order, is essential to enforce the rules that govern the institutions and organizations of society” (Castells, 2009, p. 3). Communication power in its most effective form is the power to persuade, to change people’s minds. This brings me to the final point I’d like to make about power, which I have not yet attended to – that power is always-already about struggle.

While Marx envisioned a particular kind of struggle that would dismantle power relations by overthrowing the system of capitalism, he devoted little time to describing the logic, mechanisms, and techniques of a revolutionary counter-power. The same can be said about Foucault, who insists time and time again that power is always accompanied by counter-power but says little else about what counter-power might actually look like. Castells, however, makes a point to do just that. In Communication Power, he draws for us two maps – one of a network of power, and another of a network of counter-power. Throughout a number of case studies about political upheavals, social movements, and civil disobedience, he points out the characteristics of various concrete sites where counter-power is exercised. In every instance, as he shows, counter-power operates vis-a-vis the determination of real people acting autonomously (that is to say, apart from the State) to construct their own discourses and projects.

Perhaps Castells’ analysis of power is a utopian one, or perhaps not. In any case, what is striking about his analysis is that it leads us – through communication networks – back to the human heart and mind. Castells’ theory of power is the first I have seen to take seriously its emotional register. Though power may certainly operate economically, politically, and strategically, it is not merely an impassive force (as in Foucault) nor a machine (as in Marx). Fundamentally – and above all else – power is human.


Castells, M. (2009). Communication power. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Castells, M. (2011). A network theory of power. International Journal of Communication, 5, 773-787.

Foucault, M. (1965). Madness and Civilization: A history of insanity in the age of reason. New York, NY: Random House.

Foucault, M. (1976). Two lectures. In C. Gordon (Ed.). (1980). Power/knowledge: Selected interviews & other writings 1972-1977. New York, NY: Pantheon.

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. New York, NY: Random House.

Foucault, M. (1978). The history of sexuality, volume 1: An introduction. New York, NY: Random House.

Foucault, M. (1983/2003). The subject and power. In P. Rabinow & N. Rose (Eds.), The essential Foucault. (pp. 126-144). New York, NY: The New Press.

Foucault, M. (1984/1986). The care of the self: The history of sexuality, volume 3. New York, NY: Random House.

Foucault, M. (2008). The birth of biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-1979. New York, NY: Picador/Palgrave Macmillan.

Marx, K. (1973). Gundrisse. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.

Marx, K. (1976). Capital, vol. I. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.

Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1970). The German Ideology. New York, NY: International Publishers.

[1] In “The Subject and Power,” (1983/2003) Foucault explicitly states that “…it is not power, but the subject, that is the general theme of my research” (p. 127).

[2] Although it could also be argued that this near total rejection of power in the Weberian sense – conceived as the State’s legitimate monopoly over violence – is exactly what Foucault intended to do.

Foucault, Then and Now: On Modalities of Power and the Making of Subjects

Michel Foucault’s understanding of power shifts between his early work on “total institutions” and his later work on governmentality and sexuality. In this paper, I will attend to the transformation of power, as Foucault’s conceptualization of it changes between the earlier and later parts of his work. To do this, I will begin by discussing power as it appears in his earlier writing, in the years preceding the publication of The History of Sexuality (1978). Most notably in Discipline and Punish, the analytics of power Foucault begins to develop is bound up with the emergence of disciplinary power. Disciplinary power, according to Foucault, inheres in punishment (1977) and is put into practice with the birth of the prison.

Disciplinary Power

In Discipline and Punish (1977), Foucault develops a history of the modern penal system. Before the 18th century, punishment was characterized by its visibility: In “the spectacle of the scaffold,” where criminals were publicly tortured and executed, sovereign power (the power of the king) revealed itself. Power inscribed itself on the body of the condemned person. The violent procedures of pre-modern punishment asserted “truth” – both of the power of the sovereign and the guilt of the criminal.

But the “truth” of punishment was vulnerable, even while its vulnerability was a necessary element of its functioning: The effectiveness of the sovereign’s power to punish relied on an audience, whose presence gave the ritual a meaning. Although the presence of the people was called upon to supplement and intensify the vengeance of the sovereign, there were also instances when the people could reject the punitive power and revolt against it. The visibility of punishment, which was a necessary element of its functioning, was at the heart of its dysfunction. Thus, as Foucault argues, the public execution was ultimately an ineffective use of the body, and a model of power that proved not to be very economical. Its political cost was too high.

In the latter half of the 18th century, the prison reform movement sought to establish a new economy of power to punish, “to assure its better distribution so that it should be distributed in homogenous circuits capable of operating everywhere, in a continuous way, down to the finest grain of the social body” (Foucault, 1977, p. 80). Out of this movement, punishment became more “gentle,” though – as Foucault suggests – not for humanitarian reasons. The spectacle of public torture gave way to chain gangs, toward a “generalized punishment” where prisoners were forced to do work that reflected their crime and “paid back” society for their transgressions. This model of “gentle” punishment represented the initial step away from the excessive force of the sovereign. But it too, would be replaced by a third way of organizing the power to punish: Out of the development of the disciplines in the late 18th and 19th centuries emerged the disciplines, the prison, and the modern penal system.

Discipline, as Foucault explains, is a political anatomy of detail that centers on the operations and manipulations of bodies that render them useful and intelligible. This is what Foucault means by the notion of “docility” that is the project of the disciplines. “Discipline increases the forces of the body (in economic terms of utility) and diminishes these same forces (in political terms of obedience). In short, it dissociates power from the body…” (Foucault, 1977, p. 138). The “detail” to which discipline is so attentive, individualizes control by obtaining a hold on the body at the level of its most minute operations – movements, gestures, attitudes – and rearranging them in time and space.

The distribution of individuals in space is in fact the first technique through which discipline proceeds, using devices that enclose, separate, align, and serialize bodies in an organization of functional space that enables the accumulation of knowledge over individuals by means of their constant surveillance. Foucault says more about this process when he discusses panopticism, the ideal architecture that supports an economy of power. By “economy,” Foucault is referring to the techniques that enable the exercise of power in the least costly way possible. This is thanks to an integrated system of surveillance, inspections, reports, and record-keeping that control and automate activities while allowing them to be observed constantly.

While I will not spend too much time discussing the numerous and diverse instruments of disciplinary power, I want to say something how they come together in the relationship between power and knowledge: As Foucault insists, power and knowledge are never separate domains, but instead directly imply one another (1977). A power relation cannot exist without the associated production of a field of knowledge. Likewise, there is no knowledge that does not presuppose (and produce) power relations. What is important about the myriad of punitive instruments and techniques of disciplinary procedures I’ve already mentioned is that they come together in the dual-production of knowledge/power. Instruments of observation, normalization, and examination break a unified mass into its different parts – into a multiplicity of single units which can be quantified as “cases.” Disciplinary techniques, which integrate individuals into a network of power relations, also render individuals as knowable object-subjects which can be judged in relation to each other. Discipline “makes” individuals.


Foucault introduces bio-power into his later work – beginning with the History of Sexuality (1978) – in a rather exploratory way. In his quest to understand how power functions in the production of sexuality, Foucault confronts the idea that sexuality has been historically repressed. The “repressive hypothesis” is something Foucault wants to call into question, and eventually to debunk. Bio-power, then, appears initially as an “alternative hypothesis” which Foucault can use to think around the notion of a repressed sex (Dreyfus & Rabinow, 1982). But I do not want to say too much here about how bio-power functions in The History of Sexuality. Instead, I’d like to extract Foucault’s conceptualization of bio-power from its text and reposition it alongside power as it appears in Discipline and Punish. The relationship between disciplinary power and bio-power has been contested in a variety of academic discourses (e.g. Agamben, 1998; Hardt & Negri, 2000). I argue that there is a close relationship between disciplinary power and bio-power, but that the exact nature of this “closeness” warrants further explanation:

In the latter half of the 18th century, according to Foucault, a new technology of power began to emerge. It was not disciplinary, nor was it un-disciplinary. It penetrated disciplinary power, embedded itself in discipline’s technologies, in its techniques, where it began to modify power’s entire organization (Foucault, 1978, 2009). Disciplinary power, then, was not so much replaced, as it was complemented by and integrated into the birth of bio-power and bio-politics[1].

Indeed, the birth of bio-power would not have been possible except for the development of the disciplines (see Foucault, 1978, pp. 139-140). During the classical period, with the explosion of disciplines – schools, workshops, barracks, penitentiaries – there emerged numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies. The machinery that invested in the body’s forces, and the methods for rendering bodies both useful and governable were the seeds of bio-politics. The development of the disciplines thus ushered in an era of bio-power.

What is new about an analytics of power in bio-politics is that political power is no longer concerned primarily with “society” (as it represents a judicial body defined by law and legal contracts), nor with the (corporeal) body of the individual. With the introduction of bio-power appears the notion of a social body as the central object of government: A population takes center-stage as a political and scientific problem. What is at stake, as Foucault explains, is “power over man insofar as man is a living being,” and insofar as (s)he shares with all others a life that is affected by biological processes (birth, aging, fertility, reproduction, death, illness, and so on) (Foucault, 2003, p. 239-240).

Put another way, bio-power does not act on the individual a posteriori, as a subject of discipline in the diverse forms of rehabilitation, normalization and institutionalization. Rather, it acts on the population in a preventive fashion. Its legitimacy stems from its preoccupation with optimizing life chances, as well as with the future and all of its unknowns – the risk of scarcity, famine, epidemics, and so on. These are the dangers which it must constantly work to prevent (Foucault, 2009). In order to do so, to “optimize” life in this way, bio-power must operate through regulatory mechanisms that make it possible to account for variable phenomena on a massive scale. One of bio-power’s privileged regulatory mechanisms is statistics, which allows for the calculation of equilibriums, averages, standard deviations, and unacceptable departures from the norm.

Power over Life

Bio-power involves discipline, but is also something more: It is regulation on a global scale or, as Foucault understands it, bio-power is “the power to make live” (Foucault, 1978).

But what distinguishes the “power to make live” from sovereign power, if, as Foucault explains, the sovereign king of the 17th century was empowered with a right to have people put to death or, alternatively, to let them live? The difference is a subtle one, but with serious implications: The sovereign power’s effect on life is rarely – if ever – put into practice. When it is, it is in those instances when he is able to kill. Sovereign power privileges death more than life since, for the sovereign, the right to life is the right to the sword. “It is the right to take life or let live” (Foucault, 2003, pp. 240-241).

Slowly, the sovereign’s right to life and death began to transform until the nineteenth century, when it became made clear that the “old” right to “take” life or “let” live was permeated by a “new” right – the right to make live and let die: “For the first time in history, no doubt, biological existence was reflected in political existence; the fact of living was no longer an inaccessible substrate that only emerged from time to time, amid the randomness of death and its fatality; part of it passed into knowledge’s field of control and power’s sphere of intervention; power would no longer be dealing simply with legal subjects over whom the ultimate dominion was death, but with living beings, and the mastery it would be able to exercise over them would have to be applied at the level of life itself; it was the taking charge of life, more than the threat of death, that gave power its access even to the body” (Foucault, 1978, pp. 142-143). In other words, bio-power won’t make die, but instead will regulate mortality.

From Man-as-Body to Man-as-Species

Unlike discipline, which concerns itself with bodies, bio-power addresses man-as-species. That is to say, we can think of the “object” with which the technologies of power are concerned as being, in the case of discipline, the body of the man who forms part of a multiplicity (such as the inmate who is part of a prison population) and, in the case of bio-power, the body of a population made of men, whose lives are similarly affected by the overall processes associated with birth, death, illness, and so on.

Another way of putting it is that while both technologies of power are concerned with ruling multiplicities, the disciplinary technology can do so only to the extent that the multiplicity be made manageable by dividing it up into individual bodies that can be kept under surveillance, trained, used, and punished. Here, the individual is constituted as a way of organizing a multiplicity. This stands in contrast with the technology of bio-power that concerns itself with individuals not to the extent that they are reduced to their individual bodies, but to the extent that they form a mass, which is affected by biological processes. This transformation, from man-as-body to man-as-species, characterizes a modification of disciplinary power in its individualizing mode, which transforms into bio-power in its massifying mode; from power that functions through an anatomo-politics of the human body, to power exercised through a bio-politics of the human race.

The “massifying” mode of bio-power gives rise to a “population state,” where the governing apparatus we think of as the “State” can govern less of the population by focusing instead on the administration of external devices: Money, policy, education, technology, medicine, welfare, markets, and so on, while allowing the population to govern themselves.

The Making of Subjects

Maybe the most certain of all philosophical problems is the problem of the present time, and of what we are, in this very moment. – Foucault, “The Subject and Power”

In “The Subject and Power,” (1983/2003) Foucault asserts, somewhat surprisingly, that “…it is not power, but the subject, that is the general theme of my research” (Foucault, 1983/2003, p. 127). Given his emphasis on the subject, it makes sense that this review of power should include some kind of discussion about how human beings are constituted (and constitute themselves) as subjects. The current section addresses briefly the problem of the self, and the subject, and the different modes by which (s)he is “made”.

The Disciplinary Subject

As noted in the earlier discussion of disciplinary power, discipline “makes” individuals. So does bio-power, in fact, although it does so rather differently. That said, let us begin with discipline, and the making of the disciplinary subject.

In Discipline and Punish (1977), as well as in Madness and Civilization (1965) and The Birth of the Clinic (1973), Foucault problematizes the constitution of subjects in terms of the coming into being of total institutions, and the disciplines that “make individuals.” Discipline makes its subjects through a process of objectification, where “dividing practices” (such as ranking, classification, and evaluation) separate individuals from themselves and others. Individuals are broken down into their basic components and transformed into a “case” that is defined against and in relation to other cases. These practices render individuals as intelligible subjects. As disciplinary subjects, however, their subjection relies primarily on their objectification: The subject is objectified within a system of binaries, where (s)he is either mad or (s)he is sane, either sick or healthy, a criminal or a saint. In discipline, the process of subjection hinges on objectification, which has as its privileged technique a normalizing strategy. Disciplinary subjects are norm-governed individuals.

The Bio-Political Subject

In bio-power, the objectivizing process through which human beings are “made” into subjects takes a backseat. Here, the bio-political subject is not so much “divided” (as is the disciplinary subject) as she “divides” herself; she turns herself into a subject.

Subjection, then, in the bio-political mode, is as much an active process as it is a passive one. That is to say, while we are subjected by disciplinary technologies that normalize and objectify us, we are also the subjects in this process, with the ability to shape our own conduct. Unlike the disciplinary subject, the bio-political subject is not straightforwardly a norm-governed individual. She is self-governed, not according not to norms cast in a binary system, but to acceptable averages, rates, and distributions – all of which relate to biological processes that affect the life of a population.

The ways in which the bio-political subject modifies, structures, and constitutes itself as a subject consist of forms of self-regulation or technologies of the self, as Foucault calls them (Foucault, 2008). These technologies can be thought of as internalized mechanisms of bio-power. They relate to bio-power in two significant ways: First, technologies of the self are geared toward the optimization of life. They belong to a system of government that increasingly calls for personal responsibility and self-care (Foucault, 1984/1986). Second, technologies of the self fit into the “massifying” mode of bio-power; both address the population through the biological individual. The individual who is responsible for taking care of herself is also responsible for social risks – illness, unemployment, poverty, etc. – which she transforms into problems of self-care.

How do bio-political subjects exercise resistance to bio-power? On the one hand, it is possible that the active participation of bio-political subjects affords them a special agency, and perhaps empowers them to define the terms of their subjection. It is also possible that this suggestion is overly optimistic for, on the other hand, the self-constitution of bio-political subjects is an application of particular strategies of power. The strategy of “responsibilizing” individual subjects is also a technique for indirectly controlling them.

Diagnosing the Present, Diagnosing the Future

Is bio-power still a relevant concept today? I contend that it is. Moreover, I suggest that we can also recognize – across a number of social relations, institutions, and the discourses they produce – that bio-power operates in tandem with (or perhaps is superimposed on) disciplinary technologies that center on the body, which individualize and objectify it according to a set of norms. To conclude this paper, I will provide an example of how disciplinary power and biopolitical modes of power function today, in the production of binge eating disorder. Here, power is applied in ways that simultaneously “responsibilize” women and objectify female bodies.

On January 30, 2015, Vyvanse, an amphetamine-based drug approved for the treatment of attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder (A.D.H.D.), became the first (and only) medication approved for the treatment of binge eating disorder (B.E.D.). B.E.D. is defined in the DSM-5 as “recurring episodes of eating significantly more food in a short period of time than most people would eat under similar circumstances, with episodes marked by feelings of lack of control” (American Psychological Association, 2013).

In a press release, the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, stated that they approved the drug because a pharmaceutical intervention was “necessary to prevent the serious health problems,” “social isolation,” and “difficulties with work, home, and social life” that accompany episodes of binge eating” (Mathis, 2015). Speaking on behalf of the FDA, Dr. Mitchell Mathis also encouraged women who feel they might have problems over-eating to visit the website (which is sponsored by Shire, the manufacturer of Vyvanse) and to take advantage of the free screening test and “Doctor Discussion Guide” the website provides to “help adults start the conversation with their health provider” (

What the above scenario presents us with is a rather obvious example of a medicalizing discourse that operates according to the logics of a disciplinary bio-power. It is disciplinary in that it focuses on the individual body of the (female) patient in order to constitute her as a subject.  Her subjection is achieved, in part, through a normalizing strategy that maps her conduct (her eating practices, her feelings) onto one side of a binary: She eats “normally” and is “healthy” or she eats too much and is “sick.” That said, the constitution of the B.E.D. patient subject is also bio-political: She is urged to take charge of her biological processes, for which she is ethically obliged. Here, the judgment of whether she is sick or healthy depends also on the quality of biological life which is not only hers: She also responsible for social risks – “difficulties with work, home, and social life.” This is the “massifying” mode of bio-power, which addresses the population through the biological individual. The website, the screening test, and the Doctor Discussion Guide are all technologies of the self that the patient uses, and by which she transforms social risks into problems of self-care.

The case of B.E.D. serves to illustrate how bio-power operates today. In this bio-political regime, questions about the value of life gets infused in everyday judgments, vocabularies, and techniques of what Nikolas Rose calls professionals of vitality (2007) – doctors, research scientists, FDA representatives, drug companies, etc. etc. – while entangling them all in ethics.  Bio-politics today involves a dynamic set of relations between those who diagnose, the effects of their diagnoses, and individuals who are diagnosed. In medical practice today, the processes through which individuals are constituted – and constitute themselves – as disordered subjects hinge on ethical discourses of responsibility, volunteerism, and autonomy. Perhaps, as Rose suggests, we have entered an age of biological responsibility. Or perhaps not. In any case, the concept of bio-power is worth keeping around as a tool we can use to diagnose the present, and possibly the future.



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Federal Drug Administration (FDA). (30 January, 2015). FDA expands uses of Vyvanse to treat binge eating disorder. Silver Spring, MD: FDA New Release. Retrieved from

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[1] Foucault explicitly refers to the interweaving of disciplinary power and bio-power in The History of Sexuality, Volume 1 (1978) when he suggests that they are not “antithetical”, but constitute “two poles of development liked together by a whole intermediary cluster of relations” (p. 139).