There is a strong case to be made that Michel Foucault was the most important and influential thinker of the second half of the twentieth century. He was not a nice man. And many of his conclusions were odious. But he discerned the path on which modernity was walking better than almost anybody else.
The most useful of Foucault’s contributions were not published in book form but were delivered as lectures, posthumously compiled and translated. Those gathered in the collection Security, Territory, Population are far and away the most significant. In them, Foucault provides a complete conceptualisation of the evolution of modern governance, showing how it is characterised, above all, by “governmentality” or what has elsewhere been called the “conducting of conduct.”
As soon as one hears the latter phrase, one instantly understands the insight. To live in a modern society is to have one’s conduct constantly monitored, manipulated, altered, nudged, shaped, questioned, problematised, and corrected. And those who govern us seem to have taken on the role of the conductors of an orchestra, watching over our movements and guiding us in concert. Our life choices are not our own, despite being continually reassured otherwise; instead, we merely follow the motions of the baton. Foucault saw this state of affairs as one which had been evolving gradually since the 1500s and which was by 1977, the year in which he was speaking, already far advanced. In 2023 we see its vast acceleration: while we are nominally free citizens of liberal democracies, we all understand what is in fact expected of us by our governors—to consume less carbon, to drive less, to exercise more, to eat less meat, to own fewer assets, to consume less alcohol and tobacco, to celebrate diversity, to favour open borders, to be fully vaccinated, to avoid single-use plastic, and so on and so forth. Everyone knows the litany.
Foucault’s insight was that this phenomenon would not primarily find effect through the issuing of laws, edicts, or decrees. There are of course “hard” legal requirements for us to follow (one thinks, for example, of bans on new petrol cars, which are in the offing almost universally across the developed world). But most of the conducting of our conduct happens through much more diffuse means—a kind of soft coercion which works not by imposing demands but by suffocating alternatives. It’s not illegal to eat meat. We just get cajoled into “healthier” options. You won’t be thrown in prison for spreading vaccine “disinformation.” You’ll just find your social media accounts suspended or your comments censored. It’s not that it will ever be unlawful to get on a plane to Greece for holiday. It’s just that fuel surcharges will eventually make this prohibitively expensive for the hoi polloi. Driving a petrol car will never be made a criminal offence, but local authorities will, through congestion charges, traffic management, and bus lanes, make it so miserable to be a motorist that people will eventually simply stop driving. Strikingly, most of these measures are not implemented by the state alone, but by its acting in concert with nominally private entities—many of them operating in the digital sphere.
This is not to suggest a conspiracy is afoot. Part of what makes governmentality so effective is precisely that it comes about through the individual decisions of many different actors, all of whom have ostensibly good reasons for doing what they are doing. Every time our conduct is conducted, the conductor has a reasonable argument for doing so—it is good for us, good for each other, good for the planet, good for the future. There’s no sinister Bond villain twirling his moustache or stroking his cat. There are merely thousands of policies being enacted every day, in the world of politics and commerce, which in their proliferation take on a crushing weight and force.