In Hobbes political theory sovereignty is undivided; that is certain powers are necessary to sustain sovereignty, and anything less will undermine it; for Hobbes these are the powers of:

legislation, adjudication, enforcement, taxation, war-making and the less familiar power of control of normative doctrine

Foucault develops a notion of bio-power, a power over bodies in their plurality (ie populations), rather than in the singular (individuals)

Q. Under which Hobbesian power(a) does bio-power lie under? If it in fact does.

1 Answer 1


I'm not sure that the phrasing of question makes a great deal of sense. I'll try to explain why below.

When Foucault is developing the concept of biopower (most particularly in is lectures published as "Society Must Be Defended") he traces it as a transformation in the classic definition of sovereignty from "the right of life and death" (Hobbes uses this as a defining facet of sovereignty in Chapters 21 and 30 of the Leviathan). Classically, according to Foucault, this meant the sovereign has the right "to take life or let live" ("Society Must Be Defended", p. 241). This classical right, in the 19th century, comes to be "complemented by a new right which does not erase the old right but which does penetrate it, permeate it:" "the power to 'make' live and 'let' die" ("Society Must Be Defended", p. 241) It is this last which is most properly biopower. Properly speaking, therefore, biopower cannot "lie under" any of Hobbes powers of sovereignty because biopower names a form of power that, for Hobbes, has not yet been invented.

That said, there is a perhaps more interesting relationship between biopower and Hobbesian power. It is important to note that the power of the sovereign you have enumerated are powers which Hobbes describes as "annexed to sovereignty" (see Chapter 18 of Leviathan). Being "annexed to sovereignty" means that they are powers belonging to the sovereign, but that they can be shown to follow from the purpose for which the sovereign was created, that is, the peace of the commonwealth. The relevant question is, however, to what are these powers annexed?

What I suggest is that the core of sovereignty to which these powers are annexed is the right over life and death, which, on my reading of Hobbes, is the basic inalienable right of sovereignty, the very core of what it means to be sovereign. Thus, in Chapter 18 of Leviathan, Hobbes argues the sovereign can never cause injury to his subjects. He goes on, in Chapter 21, to use this argument to show that the liberty of the subjects must be consistent with the sovereign's right over their life and death. Moreover, he uses this argument—still in Chapter 18—to argue that the sovereign may never be justly killed nor otherwise punished. In this sense, there is a form of proto-biopower at work in Hobbes, albeit in the sense of the control of bodies, rather than the control of populations.

This proto-biopower does not belong to any of the enumerated forms of the exercise of sovereign power. Rather, it forms their source, the basis on which they can be derived. Hence, whereas Hobbes argues for these other forms of power being annexed to the core of sovereignty, but he makes no argument for the sovereign having the right of life and death. The right of life and death is the most basic meaning of sovereignty. The development of biopower from out of this proto-biopower, therefore, does not represent a change in any of the powers enumerated to the sovereign nor the assignment of yet new powers to sovereignty. Rather it is, as Foucault argues, a shift in the very meaning of sovereignty itself, i.e., in the core from which all these powers are derived.

Biopower, as a shift in the core of sovereignty, is exercised through all the various classical forms of power Hobbes enumerates, but because it has changed the very idea of sovereignty, it necessarily changes how those powers are exercised and even what those powers designate.


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