It now seems clear that biopolitics, or something like it, is going to be a key category for addressing what transpires in the twenty-first century.footnote1 The concept, still in its infancy, has been theorized in a number of suggestive—and, philosophically, often very sophisticated—ways, and yet it remains largely an elusive entity. The assumption made by theorists of biopolitics, who rely almost exclusively on the late work of Foucault, is that the modern state is somehow engaged in controlling, managing or manipulating aspects of our biological life that were once off limits or at least marginal to its practices. Issues relating to health, disease, sexuality, food production and air quality are the analytical objects of biopolitical theory. One of the obvious strengths of this approach is its attention to facets of contemporary life about which people care deeply (as public outcry in the us over food labelling, soda sizes, fracking, gay marriage and availability of the flu vaccine would seem to confirm). Yet for all its concern with everyday life, the conclusions reached in biopolitical analysis have been speculative at best, emotional and hand-wringing at worst. Moreover, the foremost studies in the field have come out of the higher echelons of political and literary theory. Frédéric Gros’s Le principe sécurité promises a more accessible discussion of these issues, focusing on the problem of security, from Seneca to sms.

Gros is a philosopher trained at the École normale supérieure in Paris, and currently teaches at Paris xii (Créteil). His heart is on the left—he has written in defence of the Roma and their shameful expulsion from France by Sarkozy—and his philosophical sympathies are thoroughly Foucauldian. Gros discovered—‘with a sort of stupefaction’—Foucault’s work during his first year at university in 1986, shortly after the death of the philosopher, and has since become an expert on his oeuvre, editing Foucault’s two final Collège de France lecture series, 1983–84, as Le gouvernement de soi et des autres and Le courage de la vérité (2008–09). While his early work is either about Foucault or heavily indebted to him—a ‘Que sais-je?’ on the man himself, a book on madness and art, another on justice and punishment—Gros has begun to carve out his own identity as a philosopher. In particular he has demonstrated a clear talent for the philosophical essay, that mode of writing which brings into focus aspects of daily life that are often taken for granted, and thereby subtly examines our intellectual commitments, much in the way Roland Barthes’s early essays did. His 2009 Walking: A Philosophy surveyed, through the eyes of great philosophers, the psychic states associated with different kinds of human ambulation. More in line with the inquiries of Le principe sécurité was 2006’s States of Violence, which followed changing conceptions of warfare in the West, from the obsession with heroism in Classical Greece to the contemporary preference for privatized militaries and risk-averse engagements. In the final pages, Gros announces that ‘the “collapse of the wall” has installed a new distribution of violence that resonates according to two rationales which announce the irreversible decline of war and peace: intervention and security.’ The former locks states into a market-style rationality that ‘no longer recognizes victory or defeat, but only degrees of success and efficacy’. War is replaced by states of violence—anarchic, uncertain, dispersed. Security, the other vector of recent world history, is taken up in his new book.

Gros takes a nominalist approach to the concept of security, defining it, at the outset, in four different ways (all of them taken from the dictionary). Moreover, each signification corresponds to a discrete epoch in the history of the West. The first meaning is tranquillity of the mind. ‘Security in this sense is what one would call today serenity: a state of mental equilibrium, a disposition of the mind that is full of tranquillity, quietude and confidence.’ This was the predominant signification during the Roman Empire, as demonstrated in the work of three philosophical traditions: Stoicism, Epicureanism and Scepticism. Why Gros begins with the Romans or with this particular notion of security is never explained, but he pushes forward immediately with a run-through of each tradition’s configuration of security. For Stoics like Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, the proper response to the generalized insecurity of the external world was to maintain a sense of absolute interior security. The mind was to be vigilant in de-dramatizing our representations of the world, reducing our feeling of responsibility for that which is beyond our control. For both the Epicureans and the Sceptics the principle of security was centred more directly on Epicurus’s notion of ataraxia, typically translated as ‘peace of mind’. Pleasure for the Epicureans, says Gros, was not about satisfaction of desire or absence of pain, but about fullness of the soul, obtained by techniques—like acquiring a community of friends and calling to mind moments of happiness—meant to ward off false pleasures. Sceptics like Sextus Empiricus thought the key to ataraxia was maintaining silence: if nothing was certain, then dogmatism and assertion were the source of misery. Only by the suspension of judgement could some semblance of internal security be maintained.

The second meaning of security is ‘absence of danger’, designating an ‘objective situation’ where risk is no longer present. For Gros, millenarian Christians in the Middle Ages specialized in this domain of security. Relying on the work of Paul and Augustine, thinkers like Joachim of Fiore adopted a radical utopian programme that involved ‘the projection of an absolutely harmonious state of humanity devoid of all violence, aggression and hate’. Born of a religious impulse to rid the world of evil, the millenarian movement had an obvious political edge, reflected in the profusion of doctrines supporting universal monarchy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. For the likes of Tommasso Campanella and Guillaume Postel, its appeal lay in the absolute unity of the governed, the absence of conflict and the kind of stability it could guarantee on earth. Montesquieu was later to break this association in his Reflections on Universal Monarchy, condemning it precisely in the name of security.

Its next register is more overtly political, denoting the rights and guarantees that the state—now distinct from empire—offers its citizens as a way of maintaining public order. Here, Gros breaks down state security into its three constitutive elements: law, the military and the police—a project that takes him across four centuries, the mid-seventeenth to the mid-twentieth. The legal dimension occasions a rendezvous with the early modern ‘contract theorists’, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke and Rousseau. As with his discussion of Roman philosophy, Gros moves quickly through their ideas without sacrificing (too much) nuance. The contract theorists counterposed a natural state where life, liberty, equality and property were unstable, to a civil state in which they all became guaranteed. The price of this security was the obedience of all subjects to a common power. For the military component of security, Gros invokes the Westphalian system dating from the mid-seventeenth century, a point at which reason of state was unfixed from theological foundations and sovereignty became integrally linked to the capacity to make war. The narrative impatiently jumps forward here to the Cold War, showing the latter’s complete departure from realist calculations: security in this era was no longer about a balance of relatively equal powers, but about the promise of ‘mutually assured destruction’ between two world powers—an arrangement that transformed the patchwork international system into a Manichean struggle of two aligned camps. Finally, the police aspect of state security was relatively minimal in the seventeenth century, only to grow dramatically in the nineteenth and twentieth. Reverting to Foucauldian language, Gros describes police work as regulatory in nature, ‘an art of detail’ that favoured ‘normalizing procedures’. Its other rationality is that of maintaining public order against perceived enemies, a capacity that was abused in two ways in the twentieth century: first, by state-of-exception theorists like Schmitt and Benjamin who appealed to this exact security concern as grounds for suspending certain clauses of the liberal constitution; second, by totalitarian movements, which didn’t so much suspend legal guarantees as ignore them. In fact, the police were instrumental—here Gros follows Hannah Arendt—in mobilizing the people around the Party’s ideology, and helped these regimes to define their own version of law. Surveillance procedures multiplied, as did pressures on the population to conform through the agency of the police.