Biopolitics in the Twenty-First Century: The Malthus-Marx Debate and the Human Capital Issue
In his article “The Malthus Effect: Population and the Liberal Government of Life,”1 Mitchell Dean highlights a strange paradox: around the mid- 1970s, at a time when Foucault was concerned with the emergent figure of “population” in pre-Malthusian economic thought, Malthus’s thinking enjoyed a worldwide revival of interest thanks to the work of the Club of Rome, the 1974 Bucharest conference on global population and other circumstances which resulted in enduring fears of over-population.2 Yet Foucault seems to have remained blind to the political consequences of this “Malthusian moment.”3 Rather bizarrely, his analysis in the lecture series on Security, Territory, Population ends in the late eighteenth century without broaching either Malthus’s thought or contemporary political demographics. Not only did the following year’s lectures’ focus on a subject seemingly far removed from research into population—neo-liberalism4—but it still seems to leave the possibility of neo-liberal biopolitics without a genuine theoretical foundation. That is why Dean can claim that
L. Paltrinieri (*)
P. Bonditti et al. (eds.), Foucault and the Modern International, The Sciences Po Series in International Relations and Political Economy, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-56153-4_14
“by neglecting the paradigm of Malthus and his concept of population, Foucault missed the opportunity for placing the government of life at the heart of not only classical but also contemporary liberal government.”5
Dean’s reading is all the more pertinent in that it roots this lacuna in a certain narrowness of Foucault’s reading of early liberalism: “Foucault fails to reach an understanding of the contemporary government of life precisely because he neglects its paradigmatic case in the formation of the early liberal arts of government.”6 Liberal government did not develop exclusively in connection with those collective entities, the market and civil society. For Dean, the constant threat of demographic disaster heralded by Malthus prompted a different paradigm of the government of self and others in the liberal and neo-liberal age, “which has the government of life at its very core.” Alongside the individual who pursues his interests in the market, and his desire for liberty in civil society, we find another individual who must govern his procreative capacity in the face of an impending catastrophe affecting the whole species.
In this chapter, we shall draw upon Dean’s reading and, more particularly, his critique of Foucault to try to understand how a neo-liberal “politics of life” was able to take shape. In this purpose, and more specifically, I propose to analyze the transformations of the economic concept of “population” from the moment it appeared in the work of Malthus to its most recent specification by the contemporary theorists of human capital. In this way, I hope to sketch out what could possibly be understood as an intellectual history of the economic valuation of human life.