Two Problems with Democratic Biopolitics (Critique in times of Coronavirus)

by | 28 Apr 2020

COVID-19 has led to renewed interest in Michel Foucault’s concept of biopolitics, but it has also revealed that this concept is widely misunderstood. Too many commentators have relied upon an overly broad definition of biopolitics as a ‘politics of health’ or a ‘politics of life.’ Panagiotis Sotiris’ popular recent article ‘Is Democratic Biopolitics Possible?’ exemplifies this problem. Sotiris gives definitions of both ‘biopolitics’ and ‘democratic biopolitics’ that we should reject. Let’s turn to these definitions:

  1. Sotiris understands ‘biopolitics’ as a set of political practices that “attempt to guarantee the health (and productivity) of populations.” He relies upon this broad definition because he wants to use the term ‘biopolitics’ to discuss a wide range of political practices related to health. For example, he argues that practices as diverse as social distancing amidst COVID, the battle against HIV, and bans on smoking in closed public spaces are all part of biopolitics.
  2. When Sotiris speaks of ‘democratic biopolitics,’ he means that biopolitical practices could be authorized by “collective decision processes that are based on knowledge and understanding.” This definition implies that democratic biopolitics hasn’t yet been realized. After all, if democratic biopolitics already exists, then asking whether it is possible would be trivial. In summary: democratic biopolitics happens when rational, collective decision-making processes legitimize biopolitics, and democratic biopolitics does not currently exist.

We should reject Sotiris’ definitions for two reasons. First, Sotiris conflates two very different politics of health that Foucault studied: biopolitics and anatomo-politics. Second, if we use Sotiris’ definition of democracy, then democratic biopolitics has already been realized. In The Birth of Biopolitics, Foucault provides a rich historical study of how biopolitics was legitimized via free, rational, and collective decision making. Additionally, democratic biopolitics has been far more violent and corrosive than Sotiris makes it seem. My contribution here is divided into two sections, each of which elaborates on one of these problems.

Differentiating Biopolitics from Anatomo-Politics

In Security, Territory, Population, Foucault defines biopolitics by contrasting it with anatamo-politics.

Anatomo-politics is a “politics of the human body” (243). This means that anatamo-politics doesn’t refer to all political techniques that alter the population’s health, but rather just to techniques that directly act on the body. More specifically, anatamo-politics attempts to discipline the human body. As Foucault puts it, discipline is always “addressed to the body” (242). When we are disciplined, this means that our body is directly induced to behave more productively or usefully. Anatomo-politics “could be used to take control over bodies … to increase their productive force through exercise, drill, and so on” (ibid.).

A good example of anatomo-politics would be therapy in a psychiatric institution. The therapist uses all sorts of exercises and drills to guarantee that her patients are maximally healthy and productive. Another good example would be putting a respirator on a patient suffering from COVID in an attempt to directly control and maximize their body’s health.

By contrast, biopolitics describes not the politics of the body, but “of the human race” (243). This form of politics, like anatomo-politics, is not a blanket term for all politics related to the health of humans. The difference between anatomo-politics and biopolitics is that biopolitics doesn’t describe techniques that discipline an individual, but techniques that secure the health of the ‘race’ or species. We can’t measure the health of a population just by looking at individual cases. For instance, the fact that therapy guarantees an individual patient’s health says nothing about the species’ health writ large. Thus, instead of monitoring and controlling individuals, biopolitics relies on “processes such as the ratio of births to deaths, the rate of reproduction, the fertility of a population, and so on” (243). These processes measure and regulate the health of the whole population via statistics.

A good example of biopolitics would be a city government that uses the rate of death from COVID in different boroughs to distribute a limited number of respirators. The goal here is clearly not to increase the productivity of each individual. In fact, these decisions about how to distribute respirators will hasten some individual’s deaths. Instead of disciplining each body, the goal of this biopolitical measure is to secure the rate of death for the population in general. One upshot of all this is that biopolitics doesn’t require maximum control over each individual’s life. Biopolitics doesn’t surveil and control so much as it assesses and regulates risk. Where is the rate of crime highest? The rate of disease? The rate of drug use? All these are biopolitical questions.

In this context, we can see that Sotiris’ definition of biopolitics is problematic: he tries to draw a sharp distinction between current biopolitical practices and future democratic biopolitics, but the current biopolitics he describes actually sound much more like anatomo-politics. For example, Sotiris counterposes democratic biopolitics to ‘authoritarian biopolitics,’ which are apparently exemplified by China: “Many commentators have suggested that China … could implement an authoritarian version of biopolitics … which was helped by the vast arsenal of coercion, surveillance and monitoring measures and technologies that the Chinese state has at its disposal.” Sotiris generally accepts the commentators’ assertion that surveillance and monitoring are instances of biopolitics. Insofar as surveillance and monitoring are part of the political project of guaranteeing people’s health, they count as biopolitics on his terms. However, a vast arsenal of ‘surveillance and monitoring’ is clearly much closer to discipline and anatomo-politics than it is to biopolitics.

In summary, Foucault defined biopolitics in contrast to anatomo-politics precisely to distinguish two different historical strategies for regulating health. It is unclear why Sotiris has chosen to use biopolitics as an umbrella term. We shouldn’t accept his modified definition until it is more clear why this modification is helpful.

Neoliberalism, Democracy, and Biopolitics

Foucault thought that if we want to understand how biopolitics was historically legitimized, we should study not ‘authoritarian biopolitics’ but liberalism — and, in particular, neoliberalism. Studying neoliberalism to better understand biopolitics is one of his stated goals in Birth of Biopolitics:

Only when we know what this governmental regime called liberalism was, will we be able to grasp what biopolitics is … . I will jump ahead and talk about contemporary German liberalism since … liberty in the second half of the twentieth century, well let’s say more accurately, liberalism, is a word that comes to us from Germany. (22)

Foucault calls liberalism a regime because he thinks that many liberals — and especially neoliberals — called for a vigorous and powerful state, even as they wanted to limit direct state control of the market. To prove this claim, Foucault turns to the work of chancellor Ludwig Erhard, an early proponent of neoliberalism. Erhard wrote that “we must free the economy from state controls” (80-81). However, Ehrhard saw a free economy as the best way to legitimize the state — the best way to render it sturdy and permanent. He argued that a free economy was necessary “because ‘only a state that establishes both the freedom and responsibility of the citizens can legitimately speak in the name of the people’” (81). In other words, a thriving, competitive free market would be evidence of a ‘free’ and ‘responsible’ citizenry. This would prove that the German state was legitimate — that it spoke ‘in the name of the people.’ Ehrhard’s argument for liberalism does not by any means run counter the state; it legitimizes it. The more the state is able to establish an economic space where people can act with ‘freedom and responsibility,’ the more it maximizes itself.

Of course, this means that the German neoliberals (and the neoliberals in other parts of the world whom they influenced) believed that a free economy could only happen if the state makes it happen. The state needs to legislate society so vigorously that a space for free, collective, rational decision making emerges. To further prove that neoliberals called for a powerful, active state, Foucault turns to the French philosopher Louis Rougier, who was heavily influenced by German neoliberalism and whose work represents a “turning point of classical liberalism and neoliberalism” (162). In a 1939 speech at an important meeting of classical liberals and neoliberals, Rougier analogizes between the legal framework needed to make a free, competitive market and the rules needed to make a traffic system:

being liberal is not like … allowing vehicles to circulate in any direction, according to whim, with the consequence of endless congestion and accidents; and it is not [the attitude] of the ‘planners,’ fixing the hours of use and routes to be followed for every vehicle: it means imposing a Highway Code. (162)

In this analogy, traffic is like the market, and there isn’t a spontaneous natural order of traffic separate from the legal order. Without legal order, there is no order at all — just congestion and accidents. The order of the market, like the order of traffic, is an effect of a particular legal order.

However, Rougier’s speech also suggests that neoliberals will advocate for a very different political strategy for making a free market than an anatomo-political strategy of discipline. Just as the ‘planners’ in Rougier’s analogy have a model for exactly how the highway will be used (its hours of use, the paths that each vehicle must take), discipline requires a model for exactly how each person will behave. But a model like this couldn’t possibly create a free market — the free market is only free if each actor’s behavior is not totally coerced in advance. And so, some strategy will have to replace the general strategy of discipline if the neoliberal state is to legitimize itself.

Although Foucault himself does not conclude The Birth of Biopolitics with the thorough analysis of biopolitics that he had hoped to offer, his brief remarks on the strategy of neoliberalism make it clear that he thinks neoliberalism adopts a biopolitical strategy of security.1In his course summary, Foucault acknowledges, “This year’s course ended up being devoted entirely to what should have been only its introduction” (317). There is no thorough analysis of biopolitics in this lecture, just a few notes here and there. Take, for instance, Foucault’s analysis of the neoliberal strategy for addressing crime. The disciplinary state’s understanding of criminal justice as a way of controlling and reforming each individual won’t work for neoliberalism. This strategy of controlling each of us would undermine the ‘freedom and responsibility’ necessary for a healthy market. By contrast, the neoliberal thinks that crime and criminal justice is about risk: “The criminal, any person, is treated only as anyone whomsoever who invests in an action, expects a profit from it, and who accepts the risk of a loss” (253).

If criminality is not about ‘bad behaviour’ but about ‘risk,’ then fighting crime is no longer about disciplining individual bodies, but about assessing risk. Biopolitical measures of the population — crime rate, rate of drug use, rate of gun-related deaths, and so on — are used to justify heavy police presence in some communities (for instance, in American communities of color). They will also be used to justify an almost nonexistent police presence in others. The racist, violent goal of these biopolitical practices is no longer to control every individual’s behavior, but to target those populations who, ‘statistically speaking,’ pose a special risk to themselves, to others, and to the free market.

If we accept Sotiris’ definition of democracy, then neoliberalism employs the democratic biopolitics that he treats as an unrealized possibility. That is, if democracy is simply a free, collective, and rational decision-making process, then neoliberal states have already legitimized themselves via a democratic marketplace. This, to me, is far more disturbing than so-called ‘authoritarian biopolitics.’ The existence of democratic biolitics means that a ‘free and responsible’ people work to legitimize biopolitics every day, even those of us who are ostensibly ‘anti-racist,’ or ‘communist,’ or ‘socialist.’ We compete daily in a free market, we vote or opt not to vote in democratic elections, and we make rational choices to buy the consumer products that suit our interests. In turn, these practices ensure a thriving economy, which, according to the logic of neoliberalism, is sufficient proof that we have freely, collectively, and rationally consented to be governed. For as long as we have endured neoliberalism, we have also endured democratic biopolitics. Furthermore, democratic biopolitics has not been emancipatory; to the contrary, it is hell on earth.

Bryan Doniger studies French political philosophy at the New School for Social Research

  • 1
    In his course summary, Foucault acknowledges, “This year’s course ended up being devoted entirely to what should have been only its introduction” (317). There is no thorough analysis of biopolitics in this lecture, just a few notes here and there.


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