Michel Foucault: Biopolitics and Biopower

Key Concept

Despite their prominence in subsequent academic writing,1 the concepts of “biopower” and “biopolitics” are perhaps the most elusive, and arguably the most compelling (given the attention they have subsequently received), concepts of Michel Foucault’s oeuvre. Within his published work, these concepts featured only in the last chapter of the slim first volume of History of Sexuality (The Will to Knowledge: History of Sexuality Volume I 1976).2 And, while biopolitics and biopower can be seen to figure within broader conceptualisations and genealogies of power and governmentality3 of his lecture series at the Collège de France (largely, 1975-76 ‘Society Must be Defended’4; 1977-78 Security, Territory Population5; and 1978-79 The Birth of Biopolitics6) these references remain ‘speculative’7 and incomplete, in part due to the genre of the lecture series which stand as unedited posthumous publications.8 Indeed, whether Foucault provides us with a coherent theory or concept of biopolitics is debatable.

This notwithstanding, biopolitics and biopower continue to hold significant purchase in and for discussions on modern forms of governance and modes of subjectification. However, rather than taking these concepts as standalone and independent theoretical contributions, it is – as I demonstrate here – more productive to understand biopolitics and biopower as they function together with some of the other ideas related to power and governmentality which Foucault develops over the same period (that is, the 1970s).

Biopolitics and Biopower

Let us begin with a brief definition of biopolitics and biopower, before situating these concepts within the broader context of Foucault’s oeuvre. In short, biopolitics can be understood as a political rationality which takes the administration of life and populations as its subject: ‘to ensure, sustain, and multiply life, to put this life in order’.9 Biopower thus names the way in which biopolitics is put to work in society, and involves what Foucault describes as ‘a very profound transformation of [the] mechanisms of power’ of the Western classic age.10 In The Will to Knowledge, Foucault writes of

[A] power that exerts a positive influence on life, that endeavours to administer, optimize, and multiply it, subjecting it to precise controls and comprehensive regulations.11

Foucault is speaking here of a power he later designates as “biopower”, a power which –significantly – has a ‘positive influence on life’ (my italics). This new biopower constitutes a ‘profound transformation of [the] mechanisms of power’ insofar as it differs from what Foucault associates with ‘juridico-discursive’ conceptualisations of power as repressive and negative:12 a power whose ‘effects take the form of limit and lack’.13 Indeed, Foucault conducts a lengthy critique of this repressive functioning of power in both The Will to Knowledge14 and Society Must be Defended,15 demonstrating that such power functions to hide other productive or ‘positive’ capacities of power that are also at play particularly, for example, within the capitalist governmentality of the 19th century.

The new biopower operates instead through dispersed networks – what in Security, Territory, Population Foucault names the dispositif.16 This dispositif of power works from beneath, from the ‘level of life’ itself,11 and, as Foucault earlier described it in Society Must Be Defended, ‘[i]t was a type of power that presupposed a closely meshed grid of material coercions rather than the physical existence of a sovereign’.18

Importantly, biopower did not replace repressive and deductive functions of power, but worked together with such technologies of power. Foucault writes:

“Deduction” has tended to be no longer the major form of power but merely one element among others, working to incite, reinforce, control, monitor, optimize, and organize the forces under it: a power bent on generating forces, making them grow, and ordering them, rather than one dedicated to impeding them, making them submit, or destroying them.10

However, significantly too, the structural functioning of biopower, as it operates through the dispositif where lines of power triangulate outwards, enables new kinds of resistance; resistance which can take place at the multiple points of contact which these lines of power traverse.20

Genealogy of Biopower

In the last chapter of The Will to Knowledge entitled ‘Right of Death and Power over Life’, Foucault provides a brief genealogy of biopolitics. His opening sentence recalls the Schmittian view on the decisionism which determines sovereignty,21 speaking of how ‘[f]or a long time, one of the characteristic privileges of sovereign power was the right to decide life and death’.22 This sovereign power was of a juridical form. It was a power over life which could only be attested ‘through the death he was capable of requiring’.10 Thus, as Foucault notes, sovereign juridical power was in fact only a power to ‘take life or let live’,10 whereas biopower constituted ‘a power to foster life or disallow it to the point of death’.9

In the 17th century the sovereign-juridical form of power began to transform. Foucault traces the evolution of two forms of power which ‘were not antithetical’ to each other, constituting ‘two poles of development linked together by a whole intermediary cluster of relations’.26 The first pole was disciplinary power, an analysis of which Foucault had developed in his previous publication Discipline and Punish (1975),27 and which took the body as its focus of subjectification. The second pole, Foucault describes as follows:

The second, formed somewhat later, focused on the species body, the body imbued with the mechanics of life and serving as the basis of the biological processes: propagation, births and mortality, the level of health, life expectancy and longevity, with all the conditions that can cause these to vary. Their supervision was effected through an entire series of interventions and regulatory controls: a biopolitics of the population. (Italics in original).26

During this period there was, as Foucault recounts, ‘an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations, marking the beginning of an era of “biopower”’.29 Foucault’s genealogy continues as he observes that these two poles of power were ‘still […] clearly separate in the 18th century’,29 before starting to join together ‘in the form of concrete arrangements that would go to make up the great technology of power of the nineteenth century’.29 One of these arrangements he names as the discourse on sexuality.

At this point, Foucault states that ‘[t]his bio-power was without question an indispensable element in the development of capitalism’ which made possible ‘the controlled insertion of bodies into the machinery of production and the adjustment of the phenomena of population to economic processes’.32 This is a theme Foucault picks up from the Society Must be Defended lecture course of two years earlier, wherein he describes how ‘more general powers or economic benefits can slip into the play of these technologies of power, which are at once relatively autonomous and infinitesimal’.33 He goes on to analyse how the bourgeoisie grasped the disciplinary mechanisms of power – developed for example by the prison system – as a technology for the production of docile bodies for capitalist labour, explicitly linking the biopolitical rationality with the development of capitalism.

State Racism

Biopolitics marks a significant historical transformation from a politics of sovereignty to a politics of society. Hence genealogically, Foucault takes us from a ‘sovereign who must be defended’11 to – as the name of his earlier lecture series affirms – a society (a species, a population) who must be defended. In The Will to Knowledge Foucault describes how:

Wars are no longer waged in the name of a sovereign who must be defended; they are waged on behalf of the existence of everyone; entire populations are mobilized for the purpose of wholesale slaughter in the name of life necessity: massacres have become vital.11

In Society Must be Defended Foucault articulates this further:

[A] battle that has to be waged not between races, but by a race that is portrayed as the one true race, the race that holds power and is entitled to define the norm, and against those who deviate from that norm, against those who pose a threat to the biological heritage.36

It is in this shift from the defence of the sovereign to the defence of society as the overriding political rationality of the state that Foucault’s notion of state racism is born. He describes it as ‘a racism that society will direct against itself, against its own elements and its own products […] the internal racism of permanent purification, and it will become one of the basic dimensions of social normalization’.37 State racism is thus for Foucault the essential characteristic of the modern biopolitical state: it is both the function of the modern state and that which constitutes it.

Beyond Biopolitics

Foucault’s work on biopolitics and biopower has not been without criticism, not only insofar as his work in this area appears fleeting and incomplete. Achille Mbembe, for example, notes Foucault’s lack of a theoretical contribution on how biopower is put to work in systems of violence and domination, thus developing his notion of necropolitics which names sovereign decisionism on death: ‘the power and the capacity to dictate who may live and who must die’.38

Another seeming limitation with biopower and biopolitics has been its apparent disregard for subjectivity. In Foucault’s focus on a politics of a population and species, the biopolitical subject is not explicitly conceived within his oeuvre. This seems limiting for understanding the place of biopolitics and biopower within Foucault’s oeuvre particularly given his assertion in 1982 that ‘the goal of my work during the last twenty years […] has been to create a history of the different modes by which, in our culture, human beings are made subjects’.39 However, it is in this context that biopower and biopolitics must be seen as working together with other technologies of power – repressive and disciplinary power – which operate more directly on the body and on subjectivity. Moreover, Mbembe’s creates critical space for a consideration of the biopolitical – or necropolitical – subject in his analysis, noted above.

Rachel Adams is a Chief Researcher at the Human Sciences Research Council, South Africa

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Show 39 footnotes

  1. See T Campbell & A Sitze Biopolitics: A Reader (2013).
  2. M Foucault The Will to Knowledge: The History of Sexuality Volume 1 (1976) (trans. R Hurley, 1998).
  3. It is important to note that Foucault does not discuss the relationship between biopolitics, biopower and governmentality. Instead, the link is implicitly made in his lecture courses, particularly The Birth of Biopolitics (1978-79), in which he states ‘I thought I could do a course on biopolitics this year’, but qualifies this by saying that such a course could not be done without first conducting a genealogy on liberalist governmental reason. M Foucault The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège De France 1978-79 (trans. G Burchell, 2008) 21-22. In a 1982 essay, ‘The Subject and Power’, Foucault defines “governmentality” as follows: ‘This word (government) must be allowed the very broad meaning it had in the sixteenth century. ‘Government’ did not refer only to political structures or to the management of states; rather, it designated the way in which the conduct of individuals or of groups might be directed – the government of children, of souls, of communities, of the sick. It covered not only the legitimately constituted forms of political or economic subjection but also modes of action, more or less considered and calculated, that were destined to act upon the possibilities of action of other people. To govern, in this sense, is to control the possible field of action of others.’[1. M Foucault ‘The Subject and Power’ (1982) in M Foucault Power: Essential Works of Foucault 1954 – 1984 Volume 3 (trans. R Hurley & Others, 2000) 341.
  4. M Foucault ‘Society Must be Defended’ Lecture Series at the Collège de France, 1975-76 (2003) (trans. D Macey).
  5. M Foucault Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France 1977-1978 (trans. G Burchell, 2004).
  6. Foucault The Birth of Biopolitics (note 3 above).
  7. M Coleman & K Grove ‘Biopolitics, Biopower, and the Return of the Sovereign’ (2009) 27 Environment and Planning D: Society & Space 489, 490.
  8. For a discussion on the unpublished genre of Foucault’s lecture series see B E Stone ‘Defending Society from the Abnormal: The Archaeology of Bio-Power’ (2004) 1 Foucault Studies 77. A good example of Foucault’s work on biopolitics being incomplete is the brief reference to biopolitics at the beginning of The Birth of Biopolitics course, only for the concept to receive no further direct attention. Foucault The Birth of Biopolitics (note 3 above). 
  9. Note 2 above, 138.
  10. Note 2 above, 136.
  11. Note 2 above, 137.
  12. Note 2 above, 82.
  13. Note 2 above, 83.
  14. See particularly Foucault’s critique of the repressive hypothesis, note 2 above. Also discussed in length in HL Dreyfus & P Rabinow Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics (1982).
  15. See particularly the first two lectures (note 4 above).
  16. Note 5 above.
  17. Note 2 above, 137.
  18. Note 4 above, 36.
  19. Note 2 above, 136.
  20. For an important critique of Foucault’s notion of dispositif see G Deleuze ‘What is a Dispositif?’ in TJ Armstrong Michel Foucault Philosopher (1992) 159.
  21. C Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty (1922) (trans. George Schwab, 1985).
  22. Note 2 above, 135.
  23. Note 2 above, 136.
  24. Note 2 above, 136.
  25. Note 2 above, 138.
  26. Note 2 above, 139.
  27. M Foucault Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975) (trans. A Sheridan, 1995).
  28. Note 2 above, 139.
  29. Note 2 above, 140.
  30. Note 2 above, 140.
  31. Note 2 above, 140.
  32. Note 2 above, 140-141.
  33. Note 4 above, 31.
  34. Note 2 above, 137.
  35. Note 2 above, 137.
  36. Note 4 above, 61.
  37. Note 4 above, 62.
  38. A Mbembe ‘Necropolitics’ in Campbell and Sitze (note 1 above) 161.
  39. M Foucault ‘The Subject and Power’ (1982) in M Foucault Power: Essential Works of Foucault 1954 – 1984 Volume 3 (trans. R Hurley & Others, 2000) 326, 326.
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