Savanna Breitenfellner
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October 15, 2020

Why Is Everyone Talking About Biopolitics?

This article interrogates Foucault’s concept of biopolitics, the meddling of politics into the biological lives of citizens, and its resurgence during the corona pandemic. She argues that biopower has evolved and has been supplemented by the digital and spread along the channels of capital, rendering the phenomenon more widespread than its conceptual revival in times of crises suggests.

In Discipline and Punish (1975), a prelude to the explication of panopticism, Michel Foucault explains the quarantine measures of a plague-stricken town in the seventeenth century. The passage immediately brings to mind parallels with the current corona crisis and lockdown, as it chronicles the blocking of movement, constant surveillance, segmented spaces, and omniscient and hierarchical power that penetrates each individual. This is the common work of biopower, which is the intermeddling of politics with the bodies of its citizens. In Foucault’s definition, this manifests in a daily check-up of people who are trapped in their houses, having to appear at their windows; constant surveillance on the streets; and a penalty of death for non-compliance. In Italy during the recent lockdown, comparably, citizens were fined if they appeared in the streets without a designated reason, such as buying groceries or picking up medicine, thus compromising their freedom of movement. According to Foucault, the plague-stricken town is the dream of those exercising biopower, since the declaration of crisis allows its total functioning and full potential:

The plague-stricken town, traversed throughout with hierarchy, surveillance, observation, writing; the town immobilized by the functioning of an extensive power that bears in a distinct way over all individual bodies – this is the utopia of the perfectly governed city…  rulers dreamt of the state of plague. (Discipline and Punish 198-9)

the threat of sickness and death leads to an acceptance of even stricter security measures.

The surveilled town makes the exercising of power run ever more smoothly along hierarchical structures, and the threat of sickness and death leads to an acceptance of even stricter security measures. These health crises – whether it be an outbreak of the plague or an outbreak of the coronavirus – are justifications for biopolitics, [1] the management and optimization of life, not just of individuals but of entire populations. According to Foucault, biopolitics “exerts a positive influence on life, that endeavors to administer, optimize, and multiply it, subjecting it to precise controls and comprehensive regulations” (The History of Sexuality 137). Biopolitics is marked by an explosion in corrective and coercive techniques for controlling populations and normalizing behavior. The penetration of power into every aspect of life means that politics starts to meddle with the bodies of citizens: “The relation of each individual to his disease and to his death passes through the representatives of power” (Discipline and Punish 196-7). But how can we still speak productively about biopolitics, since we are no longer in the plague-stricken town? What novel challenges have modified and even made to evolve the forms of biopower that are impacting our freedom of movement now?

Some scholars, like Giorgio Agamben, are very quick to call our current situation a dire form of biopower, or as he calls it, “a state of exception as a normal paradigm for government” (“The Invention of an Epidemic”). Agamben’s bold statement that the coronavirus is comparably harmless and that governments are merely seizing the opportunity to exercise their power, has understandably been met with a lot of criticism. [2] From all the responses to Agamben, Joshua Clover’s is especially poignant in suggesting a way in which the concept of biopower is not contemporary enough to describe the corona pandemic. He notes that the current crisis manifests in a high tension between combating the virus and saving the economy, and fears that the latter will always take precedence, resulting in a “blood sacrifice to capitalism” (“The Rise and Fall of Biopolitics”). He asserts that a different form of biopolitics has emerged in which capitalism is sovereign:

We need to stop fucking around with theory and say, without hesitation, that capitalism, with its industrial body and crown of finance, is sovereign… that make work and let buy must be annihilated; that there is no survival while the sovereign lives. (“The Rise and Fall of Biopolitics”)[3]

What follows is that governments are not occupied with optimizing life, but with optimizing profit, while the bodies of citizens are subordinated to providing life-support for companies. This, in my opinion, is even more ominous than being ruled by a biopolitical government: it brings about an eerie feeling of being ruled by something that no one is able to control, a broken machine that enslaves everyone to profit and economic progress. Biopolitics, at the very least, is preoccupied with optimizing life, even though Foucault admits that this does not exclude the use of the “sovereign right to kill” (“Society Must Be Defended” 254).[4],[5] Capitalism’s trajectory, on the other hand, is dominated by a logic of self-destruction, which global warming has made increasingly obvious, since capitalism’s credo of infinite growth clashes with a finite number of resources. As Deleuze and Guattari have argued, capitalism’s capacity to grow is a condition of its own existence, in which its limits are constantly reproduced by its own axiomatic, causing a pathological and “suicidal war machine” (270). [6] It is imperative to see the ramifications of capitalism and the way it has become intertwined with biopolitics in order to plot for a regicide, but the right plan of action seems to be surrounded by perpetual debate.

There is another way in which biopolitics can be said to be operating vastly different now than it did in the eighteenth century: Peter Szendy brings up Deleuze’s “societies of control” as a more fitting description of contemporary surveillance (“Viral Times”). Deleuze argues that Foucault’s disciplinary society – from which biopolitics grew – has evolved into a society of control, which is rather a “modulation, like a self-deforming cast that will continuously change from one moment to the other” (Deleuze 4). Instead of a homogeneous exercise of power in which institutions are separated, such as the school, the army, the hospital, and so on, institutions now are more diffuse, changeable, and machine-like, working together ceaselessly to enslave the individual to debt and capital. [7] Society, according to Deleuze, has turned into one of codes and ubiquitous networks, in which individuals have become “dividuals,” encoded individuals defined in terms of information, who speak in a language of data and markets (5).

Capital, here, has merged with new information technologies in order to create more invasive forms of biopower.

This turns biopolitics into a completely new mechanism of power, which does not need physical infrastructures to reproduce but spreads through the networks of the digital. Now, thirty years after Deleuze’s text, the digital increasingly mediates our experiences and subjects us to a permanent and ubiquitous threat of total control: just think about Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook data to influence the US elections, or the constant spread of “fake news.” This is why Donna Haraway has re-framed Foucault’s concept as “technobiopower,” which underscores our immersion into (digital) technologies (12).

According to Daniele Lorenzini, biopolitics is the wrong framework for the corona crisis, but only because it obscures the fact that biopower is always already in place. A focus on the state of exception suggests that we are normally free from biological interventions by the state, while biopower affects our daily lives even though we do not notice it:

if we just insist on coercive measures, on being confined, controlled, and “trapped” at home during these extraordinary times, we risk overlooking the fact that disciplinary and biopolitical power mainly functions in an automatic, invisible, and perfectly ordinary way – and that it is most dangerous precisely when we do not notice it. (“Biopolitics in the Time of Coronavirus”)

The state of exception has been disproved, but only in the sense that biopower functions constantly and surreptitiously. I would add that it is this dimension of the digital that spreads biopolitics in such a seamless and ubiquitous fashion and links it to capitalism, rendering it unnoticeable precisely because intrusion through digital technologies has come to be viewed as inevitable. By looking at the ways in which these coercive measures are threatening to be prolonged after the pandemic, providing the justification for new surveillance technologies that violate our privacy, one can already see how biopolitics is more than an exception (van den Berghe). This is, after all, what Agamben means: the state of emergency will become the norm. Already, stories have emerged about the Chinese city Hangzhou aiming to keep the Corona-app in place, which tracks whether the user has been in contact with infected persons and alerts users if they should go into quarantine (Davidson). The city wants to prolong these security and surveillance measures and turn them into permanent health trackers, extracting personal information about the physical state of its citizens in order to optimize health care. This is the technobiopolitical par excellence, the hijacking of channels through which people relate to their own bodies. It is not that we suddenly find ourselves immersed in (techno)biopolitics:[8] it is rather that moments of crises lay bare the infrastructures through which the state has access to our bodies, and implements new and more coercive measures that become justified and normalized by the declaration of crisis.[9] Bringing up biopolitics as a reminder that these structures are in place, is therefore a valuable practice, especially when the invisibility of biopower allows it to become too intrusive: it is in this invisible form that biopolitics becomes the most dangerous. But the discussion is only fruitful when biopower is ceased to be treated as an anomaly, and seen as both the modus operandi of our economic structures and the consequence of our digitalization.

Works cited

  1. While biopolitics is the political rationale that aims to optimize the biological life of its citizens, biopower is the explicit forms the former takes in the sense of judicial, social and discursive techniques.
  2. For example, Jean Luc Nancy reproaches Agamben for treating COVID-19 like a normal flu, pointing out that the difference with a flu is the existence of a vaccine. In addition, Sergio Benvenuto finds Agamben’s suggestion of totalitarianism very similar to a conspiracy theory (2020).
  3. “Make work and let buy” is an ironic play on Foucault’s formulation “make live and let die” that pertains to biopolitics. The fact that Clover brings up the sovereign is also suggestive of another form of power – sovereign power – that is characterized by brutal violence and the subordination of citizens to the sovereign or ruler, which in this case is capitalism.
  4. It is not entirely clear whether Foucault construes biopolitics as a positive or a negative form of power, since his analysis reads as a fairly neutral telling of a new form of power emerging in the eighteenth century. In his last lecture “Society Must Be Defended,” however, his account shifts towards the negative: biopower deploys the right to kill everything that threatens the biological continuation of the population, resulting in, for instance, extreme forms of racism and xenophobia. Roberto Esposito, for example, addresses this problem and suggests that the contradiction that results from a power centered around life that simultaneously violates it, is justified with “an immunization paradigm.” The paradigm argues that life has to be preserved by inserting its negation – the virus, or at societal level, violence and death (2206).
  5. “Sovereign power” characterized the centuries preceding the rise to dominance of biopolitics and entails the brutal physical violence implemented in monarchies. The difference between sovereign power and disciplinary power (out of which biopower grew) is the use of physical violence: in the case of disciplinary power, the violence and coercion is more subtle and psychological.
  6. Capitalism’s axiom is that it constantly needs to keep growing; the success of the system is measured from its generation of economic growth or GDP.
  7. In the current corona pandemic, one can already see how notions such as debt and the economy have started to dominate political discourse. First it was a health crisis, but now it is a much more sinister crisis in which not individual bodies have been hurt, but an abstract notion of the “economy” is suffering.
  8. (Techno)biopolitics means that biopolitics is supplemented by technology, gaining a hitherto unknown and opaque form of coercion; it has not simply been replaced.
  9. Compare the intrusive check-ups we allow ourselves to be subjected to in airports, in the name of preventing terrorism.

Works Cited


Savanna Breitenfellner has completed the research master’s in Literary Studies at the University of Amsterdam and is a member of Soapbox’s editorial board. Her research interests include new materialism, eco-criticism and posthumanism.

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