Governmentality is a neologism development by Michael Foucault. It involves constituting rationality and subjects of government in a way that the power of governing is seen as rational.
Governmentality can be defined as a non-centralized attempt to regulate human conduct through multiform techniques and procedures. It dismantles the idea of government as singular by illuminating the interconnected and heterogeneous agents involved in the government of the conditions, possibilities, and limits under which one lives and self-regulates.
Besides state agencies, these agents may consist of scientific experts, nongovernmental organizations, activists, the media, corporations, courts, labour unions, as well as natural processes that constrain governance, such as pandemics, earthquakes, or tsunamis.
Governmentality is a term refers to the way in which the state exercises control over, or governs the body of its populace. It is an approach to the study of power that emphasizes the governing of people’s conduct through positive means rather than the sovereign power to formulate the law. In contrast to a disciplinarian form of power, governmentality is generally associated with the willing participation of the governed.
The concept of governmentality takes the definition of government as the exercise of organized political power by a nation or state and expands it to include the active consent and willingness of individuals to participate in their own governance.
It proposes that government by the state is only one form of governing, that the terms state and government are not synonymous, and that the actions taken by the state alone cannot bring about its desired ends.
Governmentality is an expression originally formulated by the 20th- century French philosopher Michel Foucault combining the terms government and rationality. Government in this sense refers to conduct, or an activity meant to shape, guide, or affect the conduct of people. Conduct takes on meaning beyond the form of leading and directing. It also refers to the “conduct of oneself” where a sense of self-governance is a guiding force.
Rationality, as a form of thinking that strives to be systematic and clear about how things are or ought to be, suggests that before someone or something can be controlled or managed, they must first be defined.
Therefore, the state designs systems for defining populations, which make them known and visible. They include mechanisms of management and administration (work processes, procedures, rules) and ways of classifying individuals or groups (by income, race, professional and personnel categories), which allow for their identification, classification, ordering, and control.
By governmentality he refers to the increasing homogenization and organization of society in modern times-through a huge bureaucratic machinery that evolves endless ways of classifying people. This subject is created and subjected to classification and surveillance through all sorts of things we take for granted-identity cards, passports and so on-through which we can be tracked, and in which we have to state who we are Indian/Pakistani, Hindu/Muslim, educated/illiterate, etc. But we are also produced as subjects by discourses of medicine (healthy/sick), psychiatry (sane/insane), biology (male/ female) and by legal discourses that judge your identity on the basis of the authority of these discourses. So, the mechanisms of governmentality are not located at the level of ‘government’ in a narrow sense, but operate through a variety of discourses. Governmentality operates through normalization, by which Foucault means the processes through which every individual is made to conform to the dominant norm.
Governmentality views power as productive. In this perspective, the objectives of power relations take on three forms fundamental to modern authority. Sovereign power is viewed as exercising authority over subjects within a territory or state (taxing, laws), disciplinary power is seen as regulating the ordering of people within a territory (schools, military, work), and government is conceived as a form of power concerned with the capacities and relations between people as resources to be fostered and optimized.
Good government is seen as going beyond the exercise of sovereign power in order to foster the population’s prosperity, health, longevity, productivity, and happiness. It is recognized that political power is exercised in a number of ways through different agencies, social groups, and techniques, which may be only loosely associated with the formal bureaucracy of the state.
Governmentality, then, is interested in an analysis of the mechanisms of government and the specific and diverse processes or practices found inside and outside state institutions that cut across domains normally thought of as separate—for example, the state, society, and family. Government is viewed not as a sole actor but, rather, as an assemblage of diverse elements, practices, and ways of thinking coming together to both frame and resolve problems.
Further, governmentality does not intend to supplant the notions of state authority where power is typically exercised vertically through the application of decisions, bureaucratic structure, or rules. Governmentality does suggest, however, that an additional horizontal approach be taken to gain an understanding of underlying relationships, which constitute the people and institutions within a population. Its ultimate concern is how we govern others and ourselves, how a government becomes one for “each and all,” or expressing a concern not only for the population as a whole but for every individual within the population as well.
Although the state may assign identities to those who govern, where conduct is more or less prescribed (e.g., executive, governor), there is the subtler implication of how to influence the direction of the conduct of the governed. Thus viewed, governing is an art involving the imaginative application of intuition, knowledge, and skills to administration and management.
The government is the administrative apparatus of the state. However, according to Michel Foucault, the French philosopher, the state is the result of the practices of the government. Foucault was interested in how modernity was marked by the emergence of a broader field of government of human conduct-of the self, of the family, of institutions and of the body. He maintained that the state is the result of this tendency towards the government of conduct.
So, rather than saying that the state is the condition for the existence of government, he turned around saying that the state flows from this modern practice of ordering life into structures, something that was not common in the Middle Ages. Foucault saw governmentality as a rationale of governing that takes the form of a series of mundane, daily practices of social ordering.
For Foucault, an important indication of the existence of power is a display of resistance to it. ‘At the very heart of the power relationship, and constantly provoking it, are the recalcitrance of the will and the intransigence of freedom.’ It is clear, then, that while at first glance Foucault’s understanding of power might appear to offer no way out, in fact, he suggests quite the reverse- that wherever there is power, there is the possibility of resistance. In Foucault‘s understanding, there are three types of struggles against power:
(a) Against ethnic/social/religious domination-typical of feudal societies.
(b) Against exploitation (which separates individuals from what they produce)— typical of 19th-century capitalist societies.
(c) Against forms of ‘subjection’ (meaning both ‘to be a subject’ and ‘to be subjected to’). in this kind of struggle, the attempt should be to promote new forms of subjectivity through the refusal of the kind of identity and individualization linked to the state and to governmentality.
At each stage, of course, the earlier forms of struggle continue alongside the new ones.
Governmentality and Politics
Foucault never wrote explicitly about “global” governmentality—indeed, it is not even clear that he would have accepted such a notion. Within states there are political, social, and economic mechanisms that are part and parcel of management; among states, only the economic mechanisms are well developed. One consequence is that global governmentality relies heavily on markets for its effects as Dean (1999) argues,
Neo-liberalism ceases to be a government of society in that it no longer conceives its task in terms of a division between state and society or of a public sector opposed to a private one…. The market has ceased to be a kind of “fenced-off” nature reserve kept at arm’s length from the sphere of public service; instead, the contrivance of markets becomes the technical means for the reformation of all types of provision…. The point of doing this is…to reform institutional and individual conduct so that both come to embody the values and orientations of the market, expressed in notions of the enterprise and the consumer.
The implications of Dean’s argument are clear: politics through markets is an acceptable practice because it serves merely to reproduce and legitimate those channels and capillaries of power that constitute and objectify those acting through markets. States do it, and so does global civil society (GCS). Consequently, GCS ought not to be seen as a realm of autonomous actors outside of the state, whose members are engaged in efforts to reform, re-regulate, and re-politicise economic activities. Rather, GCS is complicit in the reproduction of those very structures and relations that generate their activities in the first place.
It is also the case that the arrangement of rules, regulations, and practices characteristic of contemporary bureaucratic capitalist states does not and cannot address more than a fraction of the “welfare of the population.” Much of the regulatory and welfare function is provided, therefore, through the efforts of capital and civil society, working to limit the state and to compensate for the state’s limitations. That is to say, the activities of civil society associations and organizations help to stabilize and normalize conditions that are seen as threats or disturbances to the welfare of human populations. The precise methods of accomplishing these ends are often highly contested, but the overall objective is the same.
In this sense, much of what appears to be opposition—by civil society, social movements, etc.—is better understood as part and parcel of global governmentality. Populations in this instance are not composed of sovereign or autonomous individuals, as normally conceived under liberalism. Rather, they are regarded and treated as homogeneous collections of people who are molded institutionally into particular categories and forms, who regard themselves as belonging to these categories and forms, and who act accordingly.
Governmentality produces populations that behave “normally.” Individuals comport themselves according to the standards of “normality” of their specific population. The right disposition of things is maintained through the standardization of populations within certain defined parameters, the self-disciplining of their own behavior by individuals conforming to these parameters, and the disciplining function of surveillance and law which seeks to prevent any straying outside of those parameters. Taken together, these constrain individuals’ practices to a “zone of stability,” or “normality.” Power is embedded within the discursive formations that naturalize normality and that motivate the reproduction of normal populations through associated practices. This is one of the senses in which, as Foucault puts it, we are the products of power circulating through society in capillary fashion.
Governmentality and Digital Platforms
Digital platforms are reshaping cities in the twenty-first century, providing not only new ways of seeing and navigating the world, but also new ways of organizing the economy, our cities and social lives. They bring great promises, claiming to facilitate a new “sharing” economy, outside of the exploitation of the market and the inefficiencies of the state.
Mark Zuckerberg recently gave a speech in which he pointed to the way that digital platforms like Facebook have “decentralized power by putting it directly into people’s hands”. This is part of a broader discourse in which digital platforms make promises of freedom and free speech, often echoing the hopeful narratives of individual liberation of the 1960s counterculture movement.
Free speech and individual freedom, as both Zuckerberg and counterculture activists argued, will empower the powerless and push for improvements in society. Digital platforms are promising individual liberation and freedom, in the form of a bottom-up alternative to both the market and the state, in which individuals are to self-organize without central leadership.
According to Foucault, the disciplinary society was founded on the omnipresence of surveillance.
Eco-governmentality is the application of Foucault’s concepts of bio-power and governmentality to the analysis of the regulation of social interaction with the natural world.
The changing structural relations within and among states, which has led to the construction of trans nationalized environmental states, and the changing nature of the ‘art of government,’ in the Foucauldian sense.
The example of World Bank interventions in the Mekong region demonstrates how these two new dimensions of power operate. The World Bank’s latest actions effectively target resource-based populations, account for them and the qualities of their environments through new discourses of ecological improvement and compel them to participate in the new neoliberal process of ecogovernment.
The science of judging these populations’ needs and deficiencies becomes critical to the World Bank’s interventions and investments and gets refracted through new environmental state institutions and foreign investments designed for borrowing countries.
In this way, the art of eco-government circulates and expands through multiple sites of encounter (e.g., beyond and below the nation-state) and leads to new forms of capitalist expansion and new modalities of power/ knowledge.
The work of Michel Foucault, particularly his research into what he termed governmentality, has stimulated considerable interest from within the left. Governmentality is held, by Foucault and his followers, to offer insight into the ways in which contemporary authorities have sought to shape and regulate society and to do so in a way not possible through the mediation of state theory.
Governmentality is seen to be based on a “top-down” and dualist conception of power, one that externalizes and marginalizes contradiction and struggle to become a theory of social reproduction rather than of transcendence. Governmentality is therefore criticised and is reconceptualized as a social form of struggle. This top-down discursive approach neglects that subjection is neither a smooth nor complete project rather one inherently characterized by conflict, contestation, and instability.
Foucault argues for a way that is more empirical, more related to our present situation, and one that implies more relation between theory and practice. It consists in taking the forms of resistance against different forms of power as a starting point to use another metaphor. It consists in using this resistance as a chemical catalyst as to bring light the power relations, locate their position, find out their point of application and methods used. Rather than analyzing power from the point of view of its rationality, it consists of analysing power relations through the antagonism of strategies.
Governmentality is also criticized for its inattention to social differences. Feminist and critical race scholars have highlighted a tendency to ignore the complexities of social location by assuming that power falls equally overall. Related to this point, critics have emphasized a lack of explicit attention to how the exercise of power is linked to social inequalities of race, class, and gender-especially the way in which modes of power are differently accessible to different social groups.
Criticism of tendency to promote an overly abstract view of governing in which politics is reduced to rationally, also contributes to a representation of power that is omnipresent and totalizing; thereby precluding the possibility of meaningful individual freedom and human agency.
Governmentality is an approach to the study of power that emphasize the governing of people’s conduct through positive means rather than the sovereign power to formulate the law in contrast to a disciplinarian form of power, govern mentality is generally associated with the willingness participation of the governed.
This theoretical stance allows for a more complex analysis of neo-liberal form of government that features not only intervention by political authorities and empowered state agencies, but also develops indirect technique for guiding and controlling individuals.