Category: Biopower/Biopolitics

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.


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.