Clare O’Farrell picks up on an interesting suggestion in Foucault’s Birth of Biopolitics that the aim of (the) government is not to create a society of mass consumption. On the face of it this is a laughable claim, especially more so now than when Foucault originally made it 30 years ago. It also contradicts the Frankfurt School’s typical analysis, eg Adorno’s critique of mass consumption and its deadening effects.
If there is anything that marks modern society it is that we are constantly seeking new means of consumption, and of providing those means. What else marked the current financial crisis but the production of more consumption for people unable to afford homes? (Where homes are what is being “consumed”.) Isn’t that why the the sub-prime mortgage market was created and the subsequent practice of credit default swaps?
But I think Foucault is not saying that there is no mass consumption, but that it is a mistake to use that as an analysis of what he calls the art of government.
Foucault takes to task standard – and usually Marxist – critiques of modern capitalist and liberal society which see it as a society of mass consumption. His argument is that we have moved beyond this into a governmental arrangement which incites the creation of multiple enterprises. With the existence of multiple enterprises and the inevitable friction between them, we also see the proliferation of endless forms of legal regulation to keep them all in balance.
As he says elsewhere in the same lecture, the homo Æconomicus that neo-liberal government is aiming to create is ‘not the man of exchange or man the consumer; he is the man of enterprise and production’. (p.152).
What government is interested in is a kind of circulation, an aleatory one (a favorite Foucault word in these lectures) that can nevertheless be known through the usual technologies (statistics, cartography, public health, etc.).
I expect any day now to find a journal or at least conferences and papers on “circulation studies” if in fact it hasn’t already happened…
Filed under: Governmentality