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Book Review: Human Genes and Neoliberal Governance - A Foucauldian Critique

20 June 2011
By Stevienna de Saille
PhD candidate, School of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Leeds
Appeared in BioNews 612

Human Genes and Neoliberal Governance: A Foucauldian Critique

By Dr Antoinette Rouvroy

Published by Routledge

ISBN-10: 0415574471, ISBN-13: 978-0415574471

Buy this book from Amazon UK

'Human Genes and Neoliberal Governance: A Foucauldian Critique' by Dr Antoinette Rouvroy

Arising from Dr Antoinette Rouvroy's doctoral research, Human Genes and Neoliberal Governance was originally published as a hardback in 2008, but has only recently become available in a paperback edition affordable to the general reader. In between those two dates much has happened in the field of genetics and governance, both globally and in the UK, which adds urgency to her exploration of the use of opportunities created by genetic technologies to support neoliberal arguments for dismantling the welfare state.

Dr Rouvroy outlines how the assumption that greater genetic knowledge will confer a greater ability to predict individual outcomes goes unquestioned by neoliberals. She shows ways in which, even unquestioned, this assumption may actually provide a persuasive argument for the protection of universal access to health care and the continuing of the welfare state.

Much of her research centres on attempts to legislate for a projected future in which each individual has full knowledge of their genome. Such knowledge could be used, for example, in making medical and lifestyle decisions, but may also result in the person being excluded from employment and health insurance if they are deemed to be a bad genetic risk.

Dr Rouvroy employs the Foucauldian concept of 'governmentality', or the disciplinary power of self-regulation, as a tool through which she examines the coupling of genetics and the neoliberal ideal of individual responsibility, efficiency, and greater choice enacted through the free market.

The book is divided into two sections. In the first, Dr Rouvroy explores the origin of debates abound the 'gene', and the potential of genetic knowledge for predicting not only risk of disease, but a host of characteristics such as personality, intelligence and talent. Here, Dr Rouvroy argues that neoliberalism has both shaped and been shaped by the potential for generating wealth by opening the human genome to market forces.

In addition to new investment possibilities in gene patents, genome testing, and genetic medicine, the concept of 'genetic enlightenment' also offers the possibilities of new forms of state control. Already genetic technologies have improved the prediction and treatment of many diseases. Furthermore, if certain risks in society could be avoided through identifying those considered to have 'the gene for' various forms of socially problematised behaviour, genetic information could be used in the future in an attempt to control such activity.

The second half of the book explores this theory in more practical terms. In particular, Dr Rouvroy examines the history of non-discrimination legislation, and its value in limiting the power of the private insurance industry to deny coverage based on presumed genetic risk. Here is the most interesting part of her work, as it is in this section that the strongest arguments for the retention of universal health coverage emerge.

Private insurance has not only a legal right, but a responsibility to exclude certain individuals from coverage in order to promote efficient use of collective resources and to maximise growth and shareholder profits. Where health care is covered by mandatory social insurance, genetic risk may be considered simply another form of bad luck - no more one's fault than losing one's job in a recession. This, according to Dr Rouvroy, is the means by which true individualism - an independently autonomous self rather than a resource of 'human capital' - may be preserved even within the ideology of genetic determinism.

Despite its subtitle claiming to be a Foucauldian critique, it is not necessary to be familiar with Foucault's work to understand the critical tools employed in this text, which are well-explained and mainly used as a shorthand for communicating complex ideas. This is a strength of the book, as it makes the central arguments accessible to the lay reader. It is also an analytical shortcoming, as the emphasis on genetics is not matched by a similar exploration of the evolution of neoliberal discourse.


Perhaps because of this, her central thesis in part two still requires an acceptance of the dogma she begins part one by arguing against - the notion that genetic risk will one day be predictable - in order to support the (albeit welcome) conclusion that preservation of the welfare state is the answer to both the exclusion of people in society because of their genetic makeup, and the problem of generating wealth within the biotechnology industry through treating the human body as material resource.


According to Dr Rouvroy, genetic risk is 'a discipline directed at the whole population… It is therefore a particularly streamlined technique of governance' (p85). For this reason, this book should prove of great interest to those with an interest in political economics and current events, as well as genetics. It will also make an excellent addition to the small, newly emerging field of bioeconomics.

Buy Human Genes and Neoliberal Governance: A Foucauldian Critique from Amazon UK.

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