bodies that matter _ an essay about neoliberalism, post-fordism, power and bodies

This essay outlines ideas about connections between neoliberalism, power and post-fordism. I am focussing on the body as point of intersection between these complexes. First I discuss theoretical approaches towards the body, second the changes of the systems of economic production and power and third ideas about how these conditions are incorporated. My thesis is that the economic system and the techniques of control are in a very close relationship. Bodies are produced within these complex interconnections.


A theoretical approach towards bodies is possible on different levels. The basis is the idea that bodies are historically and socially constructed instead of being something “natural”. “Always radically historically specific, bodies have different kind of specificity and effective, and so they invite a different kind of engagement and intervention.” (Haraway 1991: 208)

Foucault shows in “Discipline and Punish” (1991) how bodies can become an object of knowledge within systems of power and how bodies are controlled, measured, trained and punished. The prison and other institutions can be understood as institutions where bodies were transformed into functional machines which could be integrated in the raising industrial factory systems in the 19th century. Societies were becoming disciplinary societies and the idea of the panopticum – the perfect surveillance – became the dominant pattern of governmentality. This was interconnected with the industrial mode of production.

Furthermore bodies are used to produce knowledge that is part of the discourses and they embody this knowledge at the same time. In “The Will to Knowledge” (1978) Foucault explains how within the dispositif of sexuality knowledge about certain subject positions is produced and thereby also certain bodies like the hysterical women with a weak body. Within the discourses in the late 19th century the production of the deviant other was not limited to women. We can find similar processes for the bodies of people of colour and the “under-class” (Haraway 1991: 210).

In sum we can say: “[P]ower has marked effects at the level of the body. How we use our bodies and how we understand what it means to be embodied is a function of power relations that operate to distinguish a hierarchy of bodies in terms of function and appearance.” (Shaw 2008: 83) Bodies are produced and formed through discourses.


Bodies are changing within changing structures of power and mode of production. Shaw (2008: 82-84) discusses the disappearing of the workers body, the “disciplined body” – the kind of body that was needed in the fordist system – working in factories as a (mechanical) part of the huge machines at the assembly line. The mode of production within the so called “western societies” faced great changes since the 1970’s. The process of deindustrialization was leading to a loos of jobs in production and where we can still find industrial production the logic of just-in-time ordering changed the organisation of the work process. This principle is connected with difference, individualisation and niche markets which are promoted by post-fordism. They can be understood as a strategy to create desires in consumer societies which are already saturated. The main part of work today is emotional labour in the service industry and highly specialised work in management and science. People in the post-fordist system should be flexible, individual and self-responsible. (Gilbert 2006) The post-fordism goes hand in hand with a great change in the economic and social practices which is summed up under the term neoliberalism.

“Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterised by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.” (Harvey 2005: 2) The logics of these theory were adopted by the politics in nearly all countries from the 1970’s onwards.1 In the praxis neoliberalism means that the state only creates the frameworks for the free market and opens former state owned areas like the health and the education system for privatisation (Harvey 2005: 2-3). One of the significant features of neoliberalism is the erosion of permanent institutions by replacing them with the logic of individualisation and short-term. The basic logic of neoliberalism is that the freedom of markets is the highest value and leads to individual freedom and economic growth. “There must be a free labor market, but again there must be a large enough number of sufficiently competent, qualified, and politically disarmed workers to prevent them exerting pressure on the labor market.” (Foucault 2008: 64) This freedom can only be reached by governmental interventions that follow the logic of security (Foucault 2008: 65). Essential for these interventions is danger (or the creation of a atmosphere of danger) – “individuals are constantly exposed to danger, or rather, they are conditioned to experience their situation, their life, their present, and their future as containing danger” (Foucault 2008: 66). The societies of control are replacing the disciplinary societies (Deleuze 1990), we can see “ultrarapid forms of free-floating control that replaced the old disciplines operating in the time frame of a closed system” (Deleuze 1990). “Control is short-term and of rapid rates of turnover, but also continuous and without limit, while discipline was of long duration, infinite and discontinuous.” (Deleuze 1990) Competition as a key feature of neoliberalism is part of this control whereby the concepts of open markets is an open one that incorporates more and more areas.

The changes within the economic system and the regimes of power can be summed up: Discipline is the essential concept of fordism, self-control is the essential concept of post-fordism.


My questions are: How are the mechanisms of neoliberalism incorporated? Which kind of bodies are produced by a society of control? Within neoliberalism bodies are still commodities on the labour market, but the requirements are different from the requirements in fordism. In the service industry the bodies of the employees are part of the presentation of the commodities instead of taking a “mechanical” part in the production. The bodies therefore need to fit with standards of attractiveness defined by the hegemonic discourses – young, slim, fit. It is important to notice that these notions of attractiveness are often still following the axes of power along the categories of sex, “race” and class like they were formed during the 19th century (Shawn 2008: 86-87). Moreover they have to be individual and unique – this is part of the creation of unique lifestyle commodities which form an essential part of the markets in saturated consumer societies. The claim for individualisation and diversity within postmodern societies can be unmasked as a sales strategy. The tattoos a sales assistant working at H&M has might be an expression of individuality but within the logic of neoliberalism they are only becoming another feature of the sales strategy. The social alienation of the industrial mode of production changes to an alienation from the own body which is reduced to be part of the presentation of products. This is one side of the coin. The other is that individuality, fitness and attractiveness are a general request for postmodern bodies. All these features can be consumed and constantly newly developed technologies like plastic surgery in the female genital area are creating new requirements and standards. The “perfect” body is not an illusion anymore – it is something that you can have if you have enough money to invest. Such technologies are a new quality of control and the power is truly in the bodies, it is incorporated. But new technologies are not only giving us the possibility (and at the same time the request) to create an attractive and individual body, there are also technologies that can be used to enhance our performance. On a highly competitive labour market linked with hollowed out welfare systems the pressure on the employees is rising – and the pharmaceutical industry offers a wide range of drugs that enhance the performance to “solve” this problem. So your mood and your performance are in your own responsibility – you can control them with taking the right pill. This also helps with managing the emotional labour within the service industries and the extreme level on concentration that is needed for the work of specialists and experts. Neoliberalism and its post-fordist mode of production are forming subjects that are self-responsible for managing efficient and attractive bodies. The control does not have to come from the outside trough surveillance – it is full-bodied. Another aspect of the technologies I was mentioning is that they are connected with biomedical knowledge.


This essay could only dip the toe into the complex set of issues around neoliberalism and bodies. I wanted to show that neoliberalism linked with post-fordism, a certain system of economic production and consumption, and specific changes within the regimes of power towards a society of control powerfully transformed the societies we are living in. Through the discourses within this system a certain kind of bodies is produced – bodies that are incorporating the requirements of neoliberalism and thereby reproduce them. Further thoughts could integrate questions of post-humanism and continue to examine the relationship between power and bodies.

1         1990’s for the former “communist” countries.


Deleuze, G. (1995) ‘Postscript on Control Societies’ in Negotiations 1972-1980. New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 177-182.

Foucault, M. (1991 [1977]) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. London: Penguin.

Foucault, M. (2008) The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France 1978-1979. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Foucault, M. (1978) The Will to Knowledge: The History of Sexuality Volume 1. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Gilbert, J. (2006) Notes on ‘Liberalism’ and ‘Neoliberalism’.

Haraway, D. J. (1991) ‘The Biopolitics of Postmodern Bodies: Constitutions of Self in Immune System Discourse’ in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. London: Free Association Books, pp. 203-230.

Harvey, D. (2005) A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Shaw, D. B. (2008) Technoculture. The Key Concepts. Oxford and New York: Berg.

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