Project scope

The history of systems of power is a history of the government of the world. Efficiency in governing is as important as efficiency in any other technological system. But this does not mean necessarily a trajectory towards total control. Disorder is not always opposed to order.

Government, in essence, is the regularization of the relation between “men and things.” But across history, and according to specific developmental and technological horizons, configurations of government can differ, though efficiency in government appears to be a constant as a goal. Michel Foucault famously introduced the notion of a “history of systems of power.” He contrasted this to the development of political thought, to show that political thought informs — and is informed by — specific “problems” government confronts, and to which it responds. Thus alongside the “history of ideas” there is a “history of practices” that relate to the difficulties and possibilities of organizing live populations.

A second related contribution of Foucault was to establish the concept of productive or enabling power. Power is not merely prohibition. Foucault charted the emergence in the modern European context of biopower: a form of power centred on life and aimed at optimising and developing productive forces of life. By nature, biopower is “positive”, engendering more so than limiting, though always channeling. We can chart the emergence of liberal government according to this transition, with Adam Smith marking a fulcrum point from earlier Austrian and German experiences of polizeiwissenshaft to liberal orientations to market economy and minimal government. Bentham, for Foucault, had a key role in translating the so-called “invisible hand” into a permanent architecture of power and relations of power.

As vital as Foucault’s work was and remains, Jean Baudrillard’s criticism, and theoretical work on its own grounds, brought Foucault’s model of power relations into the present, opening hard questions on where exactly power lies, and what is the nature of modern government. Developing Foucault beyond Foucault is all the more important in light of emerging models of “creative chaos” and the supposed breakdown of traditional disciplinary institutions.