Biopolitics and Racism

One quick note as an addendum to the first entry on Biopower/Biopolitics.  If we think of the diet and exercise industries, we can identify a non-state source of pressure on selves to toe the line as regards health, longevity etc.  And that pressure feeds fairly directly into the creation of markets to be exploited by commercial interests.  So biopower is hardly confined to states.

The racism argument, made briefly by Foucault and treated at greater length by Esposito in Bios, is a fairly straightforward version of the claim that an attention to preserving life leads to the infliction of death.  (We can see here a version of the “perversity” style of argument that Hirschman sees as dear to conservatives: namely the claim that efforts to do A—in this case to preserve life—in fact lead directly to an outcome that is not-A—the exact opposite of A—an increase in deaths.)

Basically, the claim is that efforts to preserve life will, inevitably, lead to identifying various threats to life, various agents that will cause life to cease.  Those agents are, then, slated for preventive destruction.  A simple case would be pesticides.  In order the insure the health and life of my crops I must kill the pests (insects/molds/funghi/weeds etc.) that threaten the crops.  Esposito shows how this logic feeds directly into Nazi thinking.  The Jews were pests that threatened the health of the German people—and hence had to be exterminated.  The killing of Jews was persistently justified in the name of health.  Similarly, Nazi eugenics and euthanasia were understood in relation to a notion of “lives not worth living,” i.e. life itself was judged according to criteria that designated some lives as not up to the mark.  (I will devote a future post to this conundrum since it brings up the issue of old age so directly).

Judith Butler’s recent work has focused just here: how is it that some lives are deemed more valuable than others?  Or, as she puts it, whose life is grievable?  We could translate from there over to Martha Nussbaum: how come only some get to have a flourishing life?  What are the criteria by which some are denied access to the necessaries that sustain life?  One criteria can be racist—whole categories of people are outside the circle of the worthy.

One question then: is it “inevitable” (a word Esposito loves) that protecting life requires designating enemies to life that must be eliminated.  This might be called the negative path.  There is also a positive path (the one I always associate with Dickens’s Great Expectations.)  Here the realization is that the sustaining of life can only come at the expense of other lives.  We all must eat—and so some living things must be eaten.  At that basic level, as Dickens sees it, we are all criminals.  Being alive is just proof that you have participated in the killing of something.  Life is paired inextricably with death—and the only two alternatives are self-sacrifice or the sacrifice of the not-self.  No innocent life.

The problem with a claim that large is that it seems universal—an absolute condition of life everywhere and everywhen.  But Arendt, Taylor, Foucualt and the rest are trying to make a claim specific to modernity, a claim that there was some kind of fundamental shift, characterized as the moment that the polity took the preservation of life as its chief focus and justification.  And if racism is a modern phenomenon (as many historians and theorists have argued), then there would have to be a connection of that racism with the new prioritization of life.  I don’t see the connection, or at least am not convinced that is the connection at work here.  Racism, certainly as it pertains to both Jews and Africans, is economically convenient in the European exploitation of the non-European world.  So I don’t see that we need biopower to explain racism.  What seems qualitatively different about Nazi racism is its roots in a discourse of health and its economic non-rationality.  The wholesale killing of Africans in the Atlantic slave trade was a cost of doing business, but killing Africans was not the direct purpose.  There was no economic gain to be had from a dead African.  But the Nazis (beyond stealing the resources of the Jews) had little to gain economically from genocide.  Their logic (if we can even use that term) does seem to refer to some kind of notion of disease, infection, immunization etc.  They were not about sustaining life economically, but about protecting life against dire external threats.

What gets left out, it seems to me, of Esposito’s mostly convincing account of the Nazis is hatred.  To focus on the “logic” that underlines their genocidal program is to miss the hatred that animates it, that renders killing a positive pleasure, an act in which one self-righteously indulges a most satisfying sense of vindication, of revenge, of seeing justice done.  Can those feelings really be traced back to a desire to preserve life?  Seems more the idea that these others (the Jews for Nazis, the blacks for the white Trump supporters that Arlie Hochshild describes in her book) have stolen something that is rightfully mine?  And it isn’t life they have stolen: it is dignity, recognition, legitimacy, status.  They seem to be thought of as more “worthy” (along some dimension) than me in the current social milieu. They get all the favors.  More in the “Mom always loved you best” mode than in terms of direct threats to my life.  Injustice, not fear for one’s vey life, is the motor, I would say.  A mixture of envy and indignation.

So I am not yet ready to buy that a focus on life as the highest good necessarily has the perverse outcome of increasing violence, of increasing the state’s proclivity to inflict death.

Another problem is Thucydides, or Steven Pinker.  It is just not obvious that modern states inflict death at any higher rate than premodern ones.  Pinker, of course, argues that violence is on the decline, that the obvious result of the Enlightenment movement toward notions of equality is exactly the result we have gotten: less wholesale killing.  In other words, the new valuation of life, which includes extending the right to life to the lowest born, did not have a perverse effect but had, in fact, the effects that we would predict to most directly follow.  Valuing life leads to a better deal for more people.  Placing power at the service of life leads to longer lives and fewer violent (human-inflicted) deaths.

The deep resistance of the left to all narratives of progress, to any suggestion that modernity is (at least in some ways) better than what preceded it, has (I would venture to guess) multiple causes.  A hatred of complacency mixes with a fear that we will settle for a half loaf where we should be striving for a full one.  But there is a deep incoherence in rejecting all ideas of progress in the name of a standard—the full loaf—yet to be reached.  A standard gives you something to measure by.  And once you are in the realm of measurement, then you have established a line along which progress can be tracked.  I guess Foucault could retreat to saying that all societies are unfree; they are just unfree is different ways.  But, even then, we would be tempted to judge some variants of unfreedom as more onerous than others.  Make the struggle against unfreedom as local and specific as you like; the struggle is still going to be toward something—either toward the removal of some form of oppression or the installation of some less onerous way of doing/arranging things.  We know better and worse in many circumstances—and all we need to some idea of progress is some notion of better and worse.

In short, I am hardly going to deny the violence of modern states.  But I am not convinced that that violence is generated or augmented by a devotion to the value of life.  I am much more inclined to say that the value placed on life is a brake (yes, a mostly, although not entirely, ineffective one) on even more violence.  Mass anti-war movements, large-scale dissent from a state’s war-making, is a modern phenomenon.  That we are even having this conversation seems to testimony to a transvaluation of values that can, conveniently, be described in terms of a heightened reverence for life.

Similarly, racism still seems to me best combatted by a generalized valuation of life.  Two things seem involved here: one, identifying something we value that is shared across whatever boundaries our categories can fabricate or our cultures erect, and two, identifying that shared thing’s vulnerability in relation to the fact that it can quite easily be lost.  Life’s value is established vis a vis the death we aim to delay, especially in relation to keeping humans from inflicting death upon one another.  I just don’t see how that worthy goal somehow (perversely) ends up causing more deaths than would have occurred if we didn’t set life at such a high value.

More thoughts about all this to come, including looking at Arendt and Taylor more specifically, trying to think about the logic of sacrifice, and questions about whether some lives are not worth living.

One thought on “Biopolitics and Racism

  1. I think you completely miss Foucalt’s point-it is about power over life. Your slavery reference is obtuse.
    And Pinker’s argument is just things are better get over it-Pinker is the ultimate apologist for neo liberalism.


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