Notes over “Biopolitics/Bioeconomics” by Maurizio Lazzarato

Lazzarato has been based in Paris since he fled state repression in Italy during the late 1970s. He collaborates with Yann Moulier-Boutang and others on the post-Autonomist journal Multitudes. This piece as a response to the debate on the series of national referendums on ratification of the European constitution. Lazzarato and his cohorts tended to be critical, in particular, of the electoral opponents of the ratification.


In this piece, Lazzarato charts a specifically Foucaldian genealogy of governmentality and liberalism. This is specifically at odds with, and a critique of, various other understanding of the emergence of the modern State and politics. It acknowledges a relation between economy and politics while, in particular, refusing the base/superstructure conception in Marxism.

The complex interaction between the economy and politics, and particularly the entry of economic questions into political life (discussed in reference to Arendt), do not tend toward a dialectical synthesis, but a stable instability, a heterogeneous power network. To effect a limited reconciliation, or management, of this network, civil society (and liberalism) is born as a third term in the equation. Civil society acts as a mediator between competing frameworks and lineages in managing society.

“But here civil society is not the space for the making of autonomy from the state, but the correlative of certain techniques of government. Civil society is not a first and immediate reality, but something that belongs to the modern technology of governmentality. Society is not a reality in itself or something that does not exist, but a reality of transactions, just like sexuality or madness. “

This is successful precisely because, “for Foucault heterogeneity means tensions, frictions, and mutual incompatibilities, successful or unsuccessful adjustments between these different dispositifs. Sometimes the government plays one dispositif against another; sometimes it relies on one, sometimes on the other. We are confronted with a kind of pragmatism that always uses the market and competition as a measure of its strategies.”

From here, Lazzarato lays out a schema of transition between strategies of discipline and strategies of security. This seems to broadly mirror (and collapse) the binary of sovereign/disciplinary power and biopolitics laid out by Foucault in History of Sexuality, Vol. 1. Lazzarato is also integrating elements of Deleuze’s analysis in Postscript: “Security is a differential management of normalities and risks…”

He goes on to describe the means of interaction and mediation between modern economy and politics, drawing in particular on the Ordo-liberals, “social market” economists in West Germany who stressed the importance of the State in establishing and defending the terms of the free market, thus “intervention for the market, not on the market.” All of society must be managed in its interaction with the market, reintroducing the population as an essential category, as opposed to the workers.

Lazzarato then moves on to consider, as does the “liberal State,” the workers outside the confines of a Marxian analysis of “mechanisms of production, exchange, and consumption,” as whole beings, subsumed by society/capital. Workers can now consider themselves human capital, individually responsible for further self-accumulation, in forms ranging from school to affects, and competing within a seemingly ahistorical marketplace. He identifies this as a key moment of individuation: “There is a shift from the analysis of structure to the analysis of the individual, from the analysis of economic processes to an analysis of subjectivity, its choices and the conditions of production of its life. “

In turn, this individuation is key to the strategy of the security society, in its complexity and flexibility: “The dispositifs of security define a frame that is “loose” (since it deals precisely with actions on possibilities); within this frame, on the one hand the individual will be able to exercise its “free” choices on the possibilities determined by others and, on the other hand, there will be enough scope for the government and handling of responses to the hazards of the changes of its environment, as required by the situation of permanent innovation of our societies. “ Liberalism as a whole appears as a political technology to flexibly manage difference and heterogeneity, and its essential form is multiplicitous, in opposition to the prevailing “totalism” of French political ideology.

Scattered points and responses:
It’s telling that Lazzarato quickly glosses over Keynesianism, and only as a minor counterpoint to Ordo-liberalism. There would seem to be a range of possible relationships between economy, State, and civil society, and not all are liberal.

If Lazzarato is arguing specifically that this liberal strategy is important because it’s in the ascent (which I think he is), his historical method is so abstract and vague that he is unable to really defend that point. He seems to argue that this is a long-term development, without engaging other strategies (such as Keynesianism or state socialism), or identifying periods or moments of transition. I’d argue that this particular strategy tends to interact and cycle with other management, but perhaps my understanding of liberalism is not adequately “total.”

The discussion of the genealogy of “class struggle” as concept and terminology in the footnote was a helpful, concrete contribution to the brief observations at the end of the Foucault lecture we read. But Lazzarato seems to treat Marx’s position here as a pure maneuver, a theoretical sleight-of-hand to conceal the question of “population” (vs. classes). But while these genealogical observations do point to a disturbing underlying structure, one also still has to credit Marx with the materialism of his method. If “population” as a category was invisible to him, it was because, politically, classes had begun organizing as blocs since at least 1789 in Paris, and potentially much earlier outside of France.


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