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.

Popular pages: The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volume 1