Foucault introduces the notion of “biopower” as a supplement to his theory of “disciplinary power.” He argues, convincingly in my view, that what we might call the “welfare state” slowly emerges from about 1750 on. That state takes ensuring the welfare of its citizens, promoting and even providing the means toward sustaining life, as one of its primary missions—or even its fundamental reason to exist, the very basis of its legitimacy. The state that can protect, preserve, and even enhance the life of its citizens is a state worthy of their allegiance and obedience. It seems plausible to claim that the Roman empire did not value citizens’ lives in this way, or that medieval kingdoms did not place each citizen’s welfare as a central value the polity was pledged to honor.
Typical of Foucault is his desire to focus on the way that something which is often celebrated as “progress” in fact carries significant costs that a Whiggish history ignores. We can use the term “liberalism” to designate the traditional story (even though, as I have argued vehemently over the years, it makes no sense to accuse 20th century liberals of buying this story; we must distinguish, at the very least, “classical” from “modern”—or 29th century—liberalism). The liberal story has several parts: a) consent of the governed to the state’s power in return for protection, for the preservation of life; b) the rise of the individual, which is why every life is equally entitled to that protection; and c) the establishment of “rights” that aim to protect citizens from the potential abuses of power by the state itself. Liberty, in this understanding of the world liberalism establishes, is meaningless without security. Only someone who is confident that his life will continue will be able to act out the kinds of long-term plans and undertake the kinds of initiatives that make liberty a reality. This notion of the necessary preconditions of liberty gets expanded as the 19th century moves into the 20th to include what sometimes get called “social rights” (to contrast them to “political rights.”) Social rights are claims upon the polity to provide the “means” to life: namely, food, shelter, education, health care, clean air and water, the list can go on. Political rights, on the other hand, are direct protections against undue interference in a citizen’s behavior: freedom of speech, religion, assembly, along with legal rights against preventive detention, arbitrary imprisonment, and rights of participation, including the right to vote, to run for office, and to form/join political parties.
Foucault had, with his work on disciplinary power, made a compelling case that the advent of individualism, usually seen as a progressive step toward valuing all lives (if not equally, at least in ways that proclaimed that no life could be legitimately sacrificed), offered pathways to the intensification of power. Namely, each individual becomes a target for power’s intervention. (Strictly speaking, of course, we should say each body becomes a site for power’s intervention—and that power produces individuals out of bodies.) Liberal political orders exist hand-in-hand with an economic order (one Foucault resists calling capitalism) that is determined to make each person as productive as possible. A whole series of disciplinary techniques are applied at a multiplicity of sites through a society to insure that individuals are up to the mark, that they are, as the phrase goes, “productive members of society.” And all kinds of punishments are devised for those who prove deviant, where deviance comes in an astounding variety of forms. Disciplinary power “articulates” the social field with finer and finer gradations of acceptable behavior, with every citizen constantly being measured (through endless processes of examination) against the various norms.
Disciplinary power, then, works upon each individual. Compulsory education is one of its innovations; the highly organized factory is another, the creation and training of the mass citizen army another. In each case, every body in the ranks must be made to conform, to play its part.
Biopwer, by way of contrast, works on populations. The nation that takes “life” as its raison d’etre will focus attention on individual life, but it will also be concerned with the general preservation of the nation as well. That is, it will become interested in birth and death rates, working to raise life expectancy, to lessen infant mortality, to encourage pregnancy and attend to the health of pregnant women. The statistical (general) knowledge that can be generated about such things will suggest various large-scale interventions by state power. The most obvious one are in public health measures: laws (regulations) to protect air and water quality, but also the outlawing of “dangerous” drugs and the interdiction of suicide.
At some points, Foucault appears to be simply describing something that is so familiar to us, so taken for granted, that it is practically invisible. The state’s power increases when we, as citizens, grant it the right to enforce various public health measures. We could say, in a similar fashion, that state power increases if we make it one of the state’s responsibilities to provide public transport. The gathering of money and the granting of jobs involved in creating and running a public transport system must entail the state having more power. After all, power is not just power over (any employer has power over employees, and the state is no different in that regard) but also power to. The state would not have the power to (ability to) run a transportation system unless it had power. So the more duties we assign to the state, the more power it, necessarily, accumulates (unless it is totally ineffectual).
However, as many readers of Foucault have noted, his discussions of power quite often come with the distinct flavor of “critique,” in a dual sense: first, as a revelation of power’s presence where either ideology (semi-deliberate masking of the reality) or taken-for-grantedness hide that presence, and second, as a strongly implied normative criticism of power as illegitimate, evil, or pernicious. Some commentators have even started to wonder if Foucault has affinities with ne0liberals insofar as he associates state power with tyranny. I think that is going too far because Foucault (especially with disciplinary power) was very attuned to the ways in which power is exercised in non-state venues (like the factory) and certainly never thought of the economic sphere, of private enterprise, as a site of liberty unrestrained by power. But his temperamental anarchy does make his approach certain libertarian positions in troubling ways—since, in my view, the libertarian is absurdly naïve, being blind to power’s presence in ways that Foucault has taught us to mistrust. Power is everywhere—and always with us. (Hence other readers of Foucault have taken “power” to be the “god-term” in his work.) Instead of the anarchist dream of a world without power, my view is we have to think about ways to rein in power, to limits its abuse, and that means distributing power in ways that neither state or employers have enough power to leave their citizens or their employees without effective recourse against abuses. Foucault, however, never goes in that direction. After identifying the many sites where power is exercised, and implying that such exercises are not good things, he has nothing more to say about how we might or should respond to that situation.
Foucault has a particular reason for thinking biopower pernicious: his argument that it leads to racism. I will take up that argument tomorrow—since it is the direct claim that a “politics of life” leads to the infliction of large-scale death. For now, one last point: biopower is not biopolitics. There are lots of ways of understanding “politics,” but one fairly basic definition of the term would be “pertaining to the collective arrangement of ways of living together with others.” That is, we don’t have politics until more than one party is involved in the creation (through negotiation, or legislation, or other means) of the arrangements—and where the goal is to establish a modus vivendi that enables sustainable co-existence (which means at least semi-peaceful and semi-stable ways of muddling along). “Biopower” only identifies where and how power, focused on issues/questions of “life,” intervenes, is exercised. “Biopoliitcs” attends to the ways that placing the question of “life” prominently among the issues a society must address leads to certain political debates/decisions/conflicts in the ongoing collective effort to forge the terms of sociality. We might say that “biopower” suggests a passivity of the part of power’s subjects—a passivity Foucualt always claimed he never intended to convey, yet nonetheless inflicts a vision that is as “apolitical” as his. An odd charge, I know, since Foucault seems intensely political. But his work rarely attends to the collective processes through which power is created and its specific techniques are forged. Instead, power appears out of the cloud like the God in the Book of Job. And it proves just about as unaccountable as that God as well. You can resist it the way you might kick your broken-down car but you can’t get under the hood and actually tinker with its workings. It takes a political vision to imagine that kind of transformative work, a work that would involve negotiation and compromise with others, and the eventual creation of legal and institutional frameworks (invariably imperfect). It would require, in other words, a belief in the power of people to intervene in history, in place of the kind of transcendent power Foucault presents us with.