Leviathan Thomas Hobbes

The Birth of Biopolitics as a Reaction From Mercantilism

Introduction to Global Goals and Biopolitics

Today, I would like to start a series of posts concerning my understanding of biopolitics and how this will lead us to analyse the new United Nations’ Global Goals or Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Two months ago, the 70th General assembly presented these seventeen SDGs, their targets and more than their three hundreds indicators. World leaders agreed on “new sustainable development norms”. Countries are required to reach each of these Global goals’ targets by 2030.

Shakira at the United Nations for the Global goals
Shakira at the UN

Nonetheless, are these new norms and consequently these new international policies working for freedom? Freedom from pollution for instance, but also from gender issues, from market issues, freedom of speech, of association, etc. Everything in September was done to entertain happiness, hope, and to make people believe in the cause. Shakira sang in the General Assembly Hall and the UN building at New York was mapped by animated projections. The question is to know if, behind this scene, these global goals will still help Earth and us.

I am not pretending here to see the future and tell you that SDGs will or will not make the world better. I am not a medium. Neither I will tell you how they were built. I will not lead here a sociological study on how the negotiations happened. It would be a long story of compromises, interest groups, epistemic community activities and description of policy ideas circulated among state and non state actors.

What interests me is to study the framework these new norms embrace and what we can call this framework and how to qualify these SDGs. I am not then analyzing if world leaders and experts were fomenting a special kind of matrix in secret. What I would like to do, it is to look at these global goals, their targets and their indicators and see what kind of framework they shape together.

It is this problem I would like to study during the next few weeks. For that, I will use a well known concept, devised in 1979 at the College de France in Paris, by Michel Foucault and which is called biopolitics. Firstly, I propose to recapitulate his work. Secondly, I will give a study of these new norms, giving you my analysis of these three hundred indicators before concluding. Feel free to comment on my work at the end of each post, the purpose of this analysis is to have a better knowledge of Foucault’s work and of what is currently happening in the international scene.

Global Goals Projection at the United Nations 

The Birth of Biopolitics as a Reaction From Mercantilism

At the end of the 70s, Foucault took some time to describe how states adopted a rational behavior in controlling their population. He explained that the criterion of this rationality in the 16th and 17th centuries consisted in implementing the Raison d’État, but this reason was also limited by the Rule of Law.

In the Modern Age, states started to consider themselves as personalities with their own interests and the need to defend themselves from their counterparts. The world was already seen as a global competition where the Raison d’État was the strategy under which states looked to  maintain their strength, their wealth and their stability1.

However, the main criterion to establish the stability of a state was less to conquer territories over their neighbors than to create the wealth of a nation. Those in power developed for that purpose a diplomatico-military mechanism as well as an economy targeting a trade surplus.

Conversely, if governments were stopped in their spatial expansion in the West, they massively invested their territories and population2. As Foucault explained in his book Security, Territory, Population, a police state was developed. At that time, it corresponded to an administration especially implementing technologies to control behaviours of a population 3

These policies were at the same time supported by mercantilists. For them, the strength of a nation could be improved by stockpiling gold but also by higher exports facilitated by a larger population4.

However compared to later currents of thought in political economy, justice was integrated into the market. For mercantilists, the legislation had to define the true price of goods and services, and to protect consumers as well as the sellers. Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out that although justice was integrated in the market, it does not mean that fairness was.

Conclusion

The Raison d’État in its essence needs to control the population to implement its goals. With its birth, it also generated the birth of an idea that a population existed and that it could serve the interests of the state. However, as Foucault mentioned in his lectures, the overall justice mechanism created during the Middle Ages constrained those in power when they attempted to rule with the Raison d’État.

Currently we experience the same problem between the Raison d’État and Rule of Law. Our liberties are always threatened by the Raison d’État as we can see today in France. On Friday 27th November, Paris alerted the European Council that it planned to violate human rights5.

Finally, mercantilism was not opposed to the Raison d’État, it even put forward reasons to violate the Rule of Law. Foucault wanted to highlight this conflict between justice and economy. Next week we will see that with liberalism, the art of government shifted to a new rationality.


Notes

  1. M. Foucault, Naissance de la biopolitique, Paris, Seuil/Gallimard, 2004, p. 6.
  2. M. Foucault, ibid., pp. 8-9
  3.  id., Sécurité, Territoire, Population, Paris, Seuil/Gallimard, 2004, pp. 319-340.
  4. M. Foucault, Naissance de la biopolitique, p. 7
  5. Médiapart, “Monsieur le Président, nous n’avons pas les mêmes urgences. Lettre ouverte à François Hollande”, viewed Saturday, 30th November, https://blogs.mediapart.fr/eric-fassin/blog/291115/monsieur-le-president-nous-n-avons-pas-les-memes-urgences-lettre-ouverte-francois-hollande
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