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  • Foucault and the state
  • Stephen W. Sawyer (bio)

For those attentive to the epochal shifts of globalization, the state has been either serving global capital or on its way out for decades. Neo-liberalism prones new scales of economic and political organization and the promise of a global civil society while international law ostensibly undermines the traditional functions of state power.1 The inadequacy of the state has found an equally sharp echo among populists who have reaffirmed democracy at the expense of a robust state.2 And in an odd déjà-vu, social scientists are once again pushing elsewhere: the state would seem at once the all-powerful protagonist of global finance or entirely insufficient for integrating popular power in our contemporary democracies.3

In what follows, I offer an analysis that seeks to come to terms with, and indeed challenges some of the assumptions underlying such portraits of the state. Perhaps ironically, I begin by returning to one of the theorists that has been most central to the push beyond the state, Michel Foucault.4 Foucault’s choice of the term governmentality, his regular comments on the insufficiencies of a strict focus on “the state,” and claims that his method implies “leaving the problem of the state aside,”5 have all contributed to a general sense that Foucault’s work pushed us in many fruitful directions, but the state was not one of them. It has indeed been commonly understood that Foucault was revealing the dark side of a rather innocent story on a liberating liberal individualism and subjectivity, and the trompe l’oeil of a progressive civil society [End Page 135] independent of the state, at the same time that he was rendering a more complex tableau of power than the Marxist emphasis on a superstructural state apparatus in the hands of a dominant class.6 Instead, it has been argued, his work from the late 1970s, and in particular his focus on governmentality, solidified a turn toward a “microphysics of power.” This approach refused a conception of the refractory state as the sole site of power and rather demonstrated how the state, civil society, bureaucracy, law, and military coercion, among many other elements, were part of a larger set of governmental rationalities.

I argue, somewhat to the contrary, that Foucault’s turn toward governmentality did not amount to a disinterest in the state any more than the last great wave of democratic mobilization and globalization has meant the state’s end.7 Indeed, many have interpreted his claim that we must cut off the king’s head as a call to turn away from the state entirely. Considering the full extent of his comments on the state, such an analysis seems problematic—as if cutting off the king’s head could mean that “the state” was no longer a significant category for understanding our contemporary world; as if through some metonymic miracle beheading the king meant the entire state magically disappeared. And what if the lesson to be learned from cutting off the king’s head is that we must reframe our basic analytical categories for thinking about the state? Precisely because he was the first to call for beheading the king, Foucault’s work is a fitting place to begin to clarify the place of the state. Through his lectures at the Collège de France, he provided a deeply revised notion of the state. Drawing it out of the center of the story, he revealed its permeability and responsiveness to other sites of power like individual subjectivity, family, civil society, asylums, schools, and multiple other bodies and practices. He refused to posit the state as a universal concept or thing with essential properties. From his perspective, one could not determine the fundamental nature of a polity by defining its state as red or blue, weak or strong, centralized or decentralized.

In what follows, I argue that this approach to the state is original in that it integrates the deep ambivalence toward the state that characterized pluralist theories as well as other society-centered approaches, without tossing out the state in its entirety. In other words, the notion of the state that we may...


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pp. 135-164
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