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Universal but not truly ‘global’: governmentality, economic liberalism, and the international

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 November 2011


This article responds to issues raised about global governmentality studies by Jan Selby, Jonathan Joseph, and David Chandler, especially regarding the implications of ‘scaling up’ a concept originally designed to describe the politics of advanced liberal societies to the international realm. In response to these charges, I argue that critics have failed to take full stock of Foucault's contribution to the study of global liberalism, which owes more to economic than political liberalism. Taking Foucault's economic liberalism seriously, that is, shifting the focus from questions of natural rights, legitimate rule, and territorial security to matters of government, population management, and human betterment reveals how liberalism operates as a universal, albeit not yet global, measure of truth, best illustrated by the workings of global capital. While a lot more translation work (both empirical and conceptual) is needed before governmentality can be convincingly extended to global politics, Foucauldian approaches promise to add a historically rich and empirically grounded dimension to IR scholarship that should not be hampered by disciplinary admonitions.

Research Article
Copyright © British International Studies Association 2011

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61 Kiersey et al., ‘Response to Chandler’, p. 144.

62 Foucault's own political view of liberalism is more complicated. The next section discusses this in greater detail.

63 Nelson, Sovereignty and the Limits of the Liberal Imagination, p. 102.

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71 Ibid., p. 105, emphasis in original.

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83 It should be remembered that Foucault never had a chance to fully elaborate his thoughts on biopolitics. While The Birth of Biopolitics was intended to fill that gap, Foucault spent most of the lecture series exploring the ‘condition of intelligibility’ for biopolitics, that is, liberal government. He apologises for this digression but ultimately leaves the conceptualisation of biopolitics up to the generations to come.

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90 Kiersey, ‘Neoliberal Political Economy’, p. 368.

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