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The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volume 1

Michel Foucault

Part Five

Part Four, Chapter 4

Part Five, cont'd


In earlier times, the sovereign had the right of life and death over his subjects. This "right of life" was effectively a "right of death." The power exercised by the sovereign was simply a matter of deciding whether or not someone would be killed. Sovereign power in general exercised itself as a form of "deduction": it consisted in the power to take things—life, taxes, property, privileges—away from its subjects.

Today, Foucault suggests, power no longer asserts itself as a deduction, as a "right of death." The primary interest of power now is in life, and how to secure, extend, and improve it. Wars are still waged— bloodier than ever—but they are not waged on behalf of the "right of death" of some sovereign lord, but are rather waged to secure a better way of life for an entire people. As wars have become bloodier, the death penalty has become less frequent. And whereas the death penalty was once a vengeful act of destruction, now it is seen as a safeguard, as a way of eliminating a menace to society. Power is now exercised exclusively over life, and is exercised either to foster life or to disallow it.

This new power over life, which Foucault calls "bio-power," takes two main forms. First, the discipline of the body, where the human body is treated like a machine: productive, economically useful, etc. This form of bio-power appears in the military, in education, in the workplace, and seeks to create a more disciplined, effective population. Second, the regulation of population, which focuses on the reproductive capacity of the human body. This form of bio-power appears in demography, wealth analysis, and ideology, and seeks to control the population on a statistical level.

More than any other factor, Foucault sees bio-power as responsible for the rise of capitalism. Human life came to be seen as an important element in history and politics. How we live became an object of power and knowledge, something that needed to be understood, regulated, and controlled. Law became less interested in forbidding and condemning, and became more interested in normalizing and optimizing the conditions of life. Effectively, the new power over life meant that human life fell under the charge of politics.


The first half of part five (covered in this section) contrasts two different applications of power: the "right of death" and "power over life." The second half (covered in the next section) will show why, with the rise of bio-power, sexuality has become such an important concept to us.

Understanding the distinction between the right of death and power over life will be easier if we leave moral judgments aside. Rather than try to weigh which one is "better," let us just accept that they are different and try to highlight the significance of these differences.

Generally speaking, we might distinguish the right of death from power over life by saying that the former is a negative kind of power and the latter is a positive kind of power. During the age of absolute monarchies (Louis XIV of France being the most famous example), the king was thought of as the embodiment of the state. Any harm done to the state was metaphorically seen as harm done to the king himself. The punishment for crimes was consequently seen as the king's (or the state's) vengeance on this transgressor. If a man were caught stealing, that man was stealing from the king, and the king would have the right to punish him accordingly.

The power exercised by absolute monarchies took the form of "thou shalt not." Citizens were forbidden from doing certain things that would be of harm to the state, and consequently to the king, and if they broke these prohibitions they would be punished. They weren't expected to do anything in particular; instead, there were limitations (laws, taxes, military service) placed on their freedom. Outside these limitations, people could live as they pleased.

Absolute monarchy came to be replaced by bourgeois society and modern capitalism. This society exercised a positive kind of power: power over life. The emphasis here was not on what one couldn't do, or on the limitations placed on people's freedoms. Rather, the emphasis was on what people should do, or how their freedom ought to manifest itself. This was the age of liberalism and republicanism, where slogans of human liberty were at the forefront of revolutions in France and America. Foucault would suggest that these revolutions did not free the people from an oppressive power so much as they replaced one form of power with another. These revolutions overthrew absolutist regimes that seemed to have little concern for the lives of its citizens. They were replaced by regimes that had a deep interest in the lives of its citizens: so much so that how people lived and how people ought to live became a matter of public importance. "Thou shalt not" was replaced with "thou shalt."

There are two reasons why it is problematic to make moral judgments regarding this comparison. First, it is difficult to separate out the good and the bad. For instance, it might seem good that bourgeois society has taken a stronger interest in the life and health of its people. At the same time, this "good" is balanced out by the fact that this interest has been very invasive. One's private life has become a matter of public interest.

The second reason moral judgments are so difficult is because Foucault is discussing the powers that have shaped who we are. We do not have a distanced enough perspective on the matter to make a balanced judgment. Any judgment for or against bio-power would essentially be a judgment for or against our contemporary way of life.

Obviously, there is not a clean break between one form of power and another, and Foucault does not claim there is. Further, these forms of power manifest themselves in many different ways. For instance, during the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union exercised a kind of bio-power: both countries had a vested interest in the education, health, economic productivity, fertility, and so on, of its populace. However, these two countries had very different ideas of what was right for its people, and set about securing this way of life in very different ways.

We might want to question the historical accuracy of Foucault's distinction, however. He is probably right in detecting a shift in emphasis away from negative restrictions during the age of absolutism toward positive regulations during the age of capitalism. However, if we characterize power over life as being an interest in controlling and normalizing the lives of a people, there are certainly ages that have done this more so than our own. The Ancient Greeks, for instance, took citizenship very seriously, and made far less of a distinction between public and private life.

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The Repressive Hypothesis

by anon_2223156517, March 05, 2015

I have to say after reading Folcot and what he is referring to brought back memories to my childhood. When I was born it was in the mid 70's Vietnam was ending , protests were raging, drug use on the rise, and along with that came prostitution and exploitation.
President Nixon issued a speech with the famous quote "War on Drugs" and Nancy Reagan moved forward with a huge campaign for prohibition against drugs,sex, and Rock N Roll.
I was raised by a fairly young mother of 19 and a father 24 both born in the 50's and definitely had... Read more

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