Thursday, July 10, 2008

State-Phobia: Foucault replies to Agamben, Part 1

[excerpts from The Birth of Biopolitics]

You will, of course, put to me the question, or make the objection: Once again you do without a theory of the state. Well, I would reply, yes, I do, I want to, I must do without a theory of the state, as one can and must forgo an indigestible meal. What does doing without a theory of the state mean? If you say that in my analyses I cancel the presence and the effect of state mechanisms, then I would reply: Wrong, you are mistaken or want to deceive yourself, for to tell the truth I do exactly the opposite of this. Whether in the case of madness, of the constitution of that category, that quasi-natural object, mental illness, or of the organization of a clinical medicine, or of the integration of disciplinary mechanisms and technologies within the penal system, what was involved in each case was always the identification of the gradual, piecemeal, but continuos takeover by the state of a number of practices, ways of doing things, and, if you like, governmentalities. The problem of bringing under state control, of “statification” is at the heart of the questions I have tried to address.

However, if, on the other hand, “doing without a theory of the state” means not starting off with an analysis of the nature, structure, and functions of the state in and for itself, if it means not starting from the state considered as a sort of political universal and then, through successive extension, deducing the status of the mad, the sick, children, delinquents, and so on, in our kind of society then I reply: Yes, of course, I am determined to refrain from that kind of analysis. There is no question of deducing this set of practices from a supposed essence of the state in and for itself. We must refrain form this kind of analysis first of all because, quite simply, history is not a deductive science, and secondly, for another no doubt more important and serious reason: the state does not have an essence. The state is not a universal nor in itself an autonomous source of power. The state is nothing else but the effect, the profile, the mobile shape of a perpetual “statification” or “statifications,” in the sense of incessant transactions which modify, or move, or drastically change, or insidiously shift sources of finance, modes of investment, decision-making centers, forms and types of control, relationships between local powers, the central authority, and so on. In short, the state has no heart, as we well know, but not just in the sense that it has no feelings, either good or bad, but it has no heart in the sense that it has no interior. The state is nothing else but the mobile effect of a regime of multiple governmentalities. That is why I propose to analyze, or rather take up and test this anxiety about the state, this state-phobia, which seems to me a typical feature of common themes today, not by trying to wrest from the state the secret of what it is, like Marx tried to extract the secret of the commodity, but by moving outside and questioning the problem of the state, undertaking an investigation of the problem of the state, on the basis of practices of governmentality.

I think that there are two important elements which are fairly constant in this theme of the critique of the state. First, there is the idea that the state possesses in itself and through its own dynamism a sort of power of expansion, an intrinsic tendency to expand, an endogenous imperialism constantly pushing it to spread its surface and increase in extent, depth, and subtlety to the point that it will come to take over entirely that which is at the same time its other, its outside, its target, and its object, namely: civil society. The first element which seems to me to run through all this general theme of state phobia is therefore this intrinsic power of the state in relation to its object-target, civil society. The second element which it seems to me is constantly found in these general themes of state phobia is that there is a kinship, a sort of generic continuity or evolutionary implication between different forms of the state, with the administrative state, the welfare state, the bureaucratic state, the fascist state, and the totalitarian state all being, in no matter which of the various analyses, the successive branches of one and the same great tree of state control in its continuos and unified expansion.

As soon as we accept the existence of this continuity or genetic kinship between different forms of the state, and as soon as we attribute a constant evolutionary dynamism to the state, it then becomes possible not only to use different analyses to support each other, but also to refer them back to each other and so deprive them of their specificity. For example, an analysis of social security and the administrative apparatus on which it rests ends up, via some slippages and thanks to some plays on words, referring us to the analysis of concentration camps. And, in the move from social security to concentration camp the requisite specificity of analysis is diluted.

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