Précis on "Right of Death and Power Over Life" by Michael FoucaultThe demonstration of power, the authoritative force that a person yields to control or influence others, is often associated with a number of various mediums including fame, political connections, and perhaps one of the most powerful of all, money. However, Michel Foucault associates power to a different level, focusing on the historical and biological aspect of the ultimate form of power: the power over life itself. The transformation of this form, through the transition of the historical form of power to the biological form of power, that Foucault describes in his work “Right of Death and Power Over Life” fairly accurately represents the effects of such transformation that we see in the present society.
According to Foucault, the original definition of the historical form of power is quite simple in regards to the control of life: to allow life to continue or to prevent its continuation. To have control over life is to decide whose life must end and whose life should be spared. In ancient times, this form was ultimate: the sovereign, a single individual could dictate who lives and who dies “in an absolute and unconditional way.” He mentions the Latin word patria potestas, a Roman form of authority that bestows the male head of the household the right of this absolute jurisidictive force. At the sole decision of the male person, the life of another that is within the domain of the household can be extinguished. No trial was involved and because patria potestas was respectably recognized by the general Roman population, no man, woman, or child can challenge the head household member who invoked patria potestas in his own domain. This power was especially so ingrained within Roman society that even the emperors themselves, the most authoritative men of the world in that epoch of history, could be and were sometimes subdued by their living fathers who invoked this right. Eventually, this form of power was modeled in the systems of administration by a number of different heads of state, sovereigns who control the economic, military, social, and political institutions of a particular society. War was implemented to represent the reaction of an attack to the sovereign's own; the death penalty was created to symbolize this extreme power that a ruler possessed; the sword, an image connoting blood and death, was defined to represent this special right and privilege of the sovereign. Historically, the ultimate power in life was the power of life, which, essentially, was the power to unleash death.
However, as Foucault pointed "[s]ince the classical age the West has undergone a very profound transformation of these mechanisms of power.” Especially with the 18th century, the circumstances of the world at that time allowed for and called for the redefinition of the constructs of power. Before the Classical Period of the Greeks, Foucault argues that as a result of the development of technology, techniques, and knowledge, mankind was able to have a greater control of life. Consequentially, those that posed a continuous threat to life, the imminent risks of death such as disease, famine, constant war, etc. was displaced by the desire and opportunities to live life as it should be lived. In this transformative world, so too did the ultimate power of life redefined itself. Because of the extra time, space, knowledge, and resources available to mankind as a result of society’s institution of various disciplines, the sovereignty evolved to a form of power that no longer repressed life with the threat of death but rather enforced it both individually as a machine, such as “extending its capabilities,” and generally, as with “propagation, births and mortality, the level of health, life expectancy and longevity.” As a result, society no longer fears the ruling government with the intimidation of fear but rather expects the government to function as a propagator of life.
The present example of the United States government an excellent example of how much the sovereign power has, indeed, changed. Regarded as the most powerful government in the world, the United States government is endowed with various powers to uphold its foremost and highest power: that is, to serve the people, a government created of the people, for the people, and by the people. Currently, the people expect the government to provide basic needs and rights to the general population of the country: social welfare, social security, universal insurance, and universal education, among many other things. In their expectancy and dependency on the government to provide the rights and life to propagate life, the people and their relationship with the government exemplify the transformative nature of the ruling institution that yields the sovereign power that Foucault identifies in his work. The current system of sovereignty in various societies around the world is expected to carry the responsibility to enforce life. In fact, for many of these governments, the ancient form of power that once solidified the ruler's control is no longer afforded to these institutions. Take, for instance, the death penalty, a practice that historically symbolized the power of life through death, is quickly disappearing among the many progressive changes due to the shift in the nature of power. Historically, governments that were bestowed sovereign authority, especially one that was invested in one individual or a select few, were often feared because their power was based on their singular choice to cause death. Now, however, we find a situation that is quite opposite of what it was like a few centuries past. Now, we find various governments who utilize their power to enforce and expand life and are deprived of mechanisms such as the death penalty to prevent the discontinuation of life.
Foucault defines the historical, and biological context, of the sovereign power and its evolutionary reconstruction to spell out his more complex arguments in which he contends that, as a result of this transformation, life itself became a political issue and in the variances of life, sex and gender now possesses a complex role in the subsequent political struggle. His description of this change of the ultimate power of life, one that was once premised on death but is now expediting and enforcing life, the bio-power of the government, was particularly interesting to read and stood out the most over the course of the reading. This précis was, thus, written to focus specifically on that passage of the text and how his argument rings truth in light of the present day manifestations of power.