Democratic Biopolitics Revisited: A Response to a Critique

In his recent intervention on CLT, Bryan Doniger offered a critique of my short intervention ‘Against Agamben: Is a Democratic Biopolitics Possible?’. The main points of this critique are (a) that I do not pay enough attention to the notion of biopolitics as it is indeed articulated in the work of Michel Foucault, confusing anatomo-politics and biopolitics and (b) that as a result I do not realise that the notion of democratic biopolitics I tentatively tried to suggest is indeed already put in practice by contemporary neoliberalism with catastrophic results.

Actually my intervention was aimed more at one of Giorgio Agamben’s early interventions on the pandemic1Giorgo Agamben, ‘L’invenzione di un’epidemia’, 26 February 2020, and it was a protest against simply thinking of any collective behavioural change as a form of authoritarian ‘biopolitics’. I was feeling at that particular moment, early in the pandemic, that treating all measures of physical distancing as an exercise of ‘authoritarian biopolitics’ was misplaced. At the same time, I tried to stress that the choice was not between simply doing nothing and a series of coercive forms of restrictions and lockdowns, and suggested that it is possible to rethink a politics that dealt with public health in forms that were based upon forms of democratic participation, collective discussion and the possibility of a democratisation of knowledge that can lead even to changes in behaviour, including forms of physical distancing as practices of collective responsibility and solidarity and not as a suspension of sociality. I choose to describe this as a form of ‘democratic biopolitics’, based on (a) an insistence on the relational character of notions such as biopolitics and (b) on Foucault’s later work and notions such as parrhesia and courage of truth. But it was rather sketchy and the text was more commentary than theory.

Bryan Doniger is right to remind us that biopolitics has a very specific connotation in Foucault and it surely does not refer simply to the association between power and questions of health as is often the case.

So I would like to return to the complexity of Foucault’s thinking. We know that in the 1970s Foucault presented a thinking of what he defined as disciplinary power. Here is a definition he offered in The Punitive Society:

It seemed to me, in fact, that we live in a society of disciplinary power, that is to say a society equipped with apparatuses whose form is sequestration, whose purpose is the formation of a labor force, and whose instrument is the acquisition of disciplines or habits.2Michel Foucault, The Punitive Society. Lectures at the Collège de France 1972-1973, translated by Graham Burchell, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, p. 237.

Foucault opposed disciplinary power to sovereign power. This is how he puts it in “Society Must be Defended”, the 1975-1976 lectures:

Now, an important phenomenon occurred in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: the appearance — one should say the invention — of a new mechanism of power which had very specific procedures, completely new instruments, and very different equipment. It was, I believe, absolutely incompatible with relations of sovereignty. This new mechanism of power applies primarily to bodies and what they do rather than to the land and what it produces. It was a mechanism of power that made it possible to extract time and labor, rather than commodities and wealth, from bodies.3Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”. Lectures at the Collège de France 1975-1976, translated by David Macey, New York: Picador, 2003, pp. 35-36.

Disciplinary power has to do with norms, normalisation and how bodies become productive and Foucault associates it with the rise of capitalism, and these texts coincide with Foucault engaging in a dialogue with Marx, something evident in interviews from this period.4See for example ‘Entretien inédit entre Michel Foucault et quatre militants de la LCR, membres de la rubrique culturelle du journal quotidien Rouge (juillet 1977)’, Many of Foucault’s writings from that period that dealt with questions about health or medicine seem to fall under this conception of disciplinary power. This is obvious in the 1973-1974 lectures on Psychiatric Power where Foucault insisted that ‘The mechanism of psychiatry should be understood starting from the way in which disciplinary power works.’5Michel Foucault, Psychiatric Power. Lectures at the Collège de France 1973-1974, translated by Graham Burchell, London: Palgrave Macmilan, 2006, p. 41. This is also the theoretical ground of Discipline and Punish which introduced this conception of disciplinary power to a broader audience.6Michal Foucault, Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison, translated by Alan Sheridan, New Yoork: Vintage Books.

Foucault did not suggest that disciplinary power simply replaced sovereign power; rather he insisted that the logic of sovereignty persists, both as a means to counter monarchy and other obstacles to disciplinary power, and as a system of juridical rights that in a certain way enables and conceals the effectivity of disciplinary power.7‘On the one hand, the theory of sovereignty was, in the seventeenth century and even the nineteenth century, a permanent critical instrument to be used against the monarchy and all the obstacles that stood in the way of the development of the disciplinary society. On the other hand, this theory, and the organization of a juridical code centered upon it, made it possible to superimpose on the mechanism of discipline a system of right that concealed its mechanisms and erased the element of domination and the techniques of domination involved in discipline, and which, finally, guaranteed that everyone could exercise his or her own sovereign rights thanks to the sovereignty of the State.’ (Foucault, “Society must be defended”), p. 37.

The notion of biopolitics emerges along with the notion of biopower as an attempt to see a form of power that moves beyond discipline, although the initial formulation seems rather tentative. This is evident in the way biopower and biopolitics are defined in both the first volume of the History of Sexuality and the Society Must Be Defended lectures. Foucault pointed towards a certain vision of power over life that defines a broader historical epoch tracing within it a line of demarcation between anatomo-politics and biopolitics proper as different coexisting and to a certain degree complementary modalities.

In concrete terms, starting in the seventeenth century, this power over life evolved in two basic forms; these forms were not antithetical, however; they constituted rather two poles of development linked together by a whole intermediary cluster of relations. One of these poles — the first to be formed, it seems — centered on the body as a machine: its disciplining, the optimization of its capabilities, the extortion of its forces, the parallel increase of its usefulness and its docility, its integration into systems of efficient and economic controls, all this was ensured by the procedures of power that characterized the disciplines: an anatomo-politics of the human body. 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.8Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1: An Introduction, tr. by Robert Hurley, New York: Pantheon, 1978, p. 139.

A great part of the literature on biopolitics comes from a conception of biopolitics as a form of disciplinary biopower that incorporates medicine and public health into the forms of exercise of power associated with the dominance of the capitalist mode of production, especially since this could be supported by the work of Foucault during his lifetime and in particular the first volume of the History of Sexuality read in conjunction with Discipline and Punish. And indeed it enabled forceful critiques of the non-neutrality of medical institutions. However, Foucault gradually moved to a greater distancing between disciplinary power and biopolitics proper. In the Security, Territory, Population lectures, Foucault made a distinction between disciplinary apparatuses and ‘the apparatus [dispositif] of security’.9Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population. Lectures at the Collège de France 1977-1978, translated by Graham Burchell p.20. As an example of this distinction between discipline and security, Foucault proposed the different handling of the plague and smallpox.

The fundamental problem will not be the imposition of discipline, although discipline may be called on to help, so much as the problem of knowing how many people are infected with smallpox, at what age, with what effects, with what mortality rate, lesions or aftereffects, the risks of inoculation, the probability of an individual dying or being infected by smallpox despite inoculation, and the statistical effects on the population in general. In short, it will no longer be the problem of exclusion, as with leprosy, or of quarantine, as with the plague, but of epidemics and the medical campaigns that try to halt epidemic or endemic phenomena.10Foucault, Security…, pp. 24-25

Foucault attempted to trace how this conception of security can be linked to the way problems like scarcity are being treated by means of the mechanism of the market and how this induces the emergence of a new modality of power.

Discipline is essentially centripetal. I mean that discipline functions to the extent that it isolates a space, that it determines a segment. Discipline concentrates, focuses, and encloses. The first action of discipline is in fact to circumscribe a space in which its power and the mechanisms of its power will function fully and without limit. […] It isolates, it concentrates, it encloses, it is protectionist, and it focuses essentially on action on the market or on the space of the market and what surrounds it. In contrast, you can see that the apparatuses of security, as I have tried to reconstruct them, have the constant tendency to expand; they are centrifugal. New elements are constantly being integrated: production, psychology, behavior, the ways of doing things of producers, buyers, consumers, importers, and exporters, and the world market. Security therefore involves organizing, or anyway allowing the development of ever-wider circuits11Foucault, Security…, p. 67

It is here that Foucault encountered liberalism and how a certain freedom of movement becomes an essential aspect of this new technology of power. Foucault used as examples the new forms of countering endemic diseases through inoculation and vaccination, an approach not focused on simple protection but rather on the constant management of risk. Moreover, this pointed towards a relation between government and population that cannot be limited to the disciplinary relation, since it involves calculating, managing and regulating both risk and the desires of the population. It is here that we find this connection between biopolitics and the emergence of political economy and liberalism, the new forms of political power associated with the dynamics of capitalist accumulation, the relation between population and individuals, in short the research project on ‘governmentality’.

By this word ‘governmentality’ I mean three things. First, […] the ensemble formed by institutions, procedures, analyses and reflections, calculations, and tactics that allow the exercise of this very specific, albeit very complex, power that has the population as its target, political economy as its major form of knowledge, and apparatuses of security as its essential technical instrument. Second, […] the tendency, the line of force, that for a long time, and throughout the West, has constantly led towards the pre-eminence over all other types of power — sovereignty, discipline, and so on — of the type of power that we can call ‘government’ and which has led to the development of a series of specific governmental apparatuses (appareils) on the one hand, [and, on the other] to the development of a series of knowledges (savoirs). Finally, by ‘governmentality’ […] the process, or rather, the result of the process by which the state of justice of the Middle Ages became the administrative state in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and was gradually ‘governmentalized.’12Foucault, Security…, p. 144.

Consequently the research into biopolitics is at the centre of this decision of Foucault to embark on a research project on governmentality and the various forms of the ‘art of government’ in history in an attempt to move beyond the disciplinary approach. Foucault would move towards two main directions: (a) the linkage between liberalism and biopolitics, which is most evident in the Birth of Biopolitics lectures,13Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics. Lectures at the Collège de France 1978-1979, translated by Graham Burchell, London: Palgrave Macmillan. where the question of biopolitics is basically let aside on order to research the genealogy of liberalism, including the proto-neoliberalism of the German ordoliberalismus current; (b) the return to a potential genealogy of the thinking on the art of government beginning with antiquity and it is within this context where also the discussion of crucial notions such as care of self and parrhesia / courage for the truth emerges, always trying to avoid any foundationalist approach to the question of power and expanding the ‘nominalism of power’ approach already articulated in the first volume of his History of Sexuality.

Now Bryan Doniger seems to suggest that because of this association that Foucault makes between biopolitics (and biopower) and the emergence of liberal (and neoliberal) governmentality, it would be risky to reappropriate this notion, if we want to think a critical and emancipatory approach. Moreover, he thinks that my sketchy suggestion of a democratic biopolitics is in fact close to the actual neoliberal biopolitics at the origin of the current crisis and the fact that neoliberal governments have failed to prepare for such an emergency.

In a narrow ‘philological’ sense he might have a point. However, I think that he misses the dynamic and relational character that Foucault’s notions have. So I would suggest that biopolitics and biopower represent indeed a modality of power that is associated with the emergence of capitalism. At the same time, they points toward the formation of a new terrain of antagonisms and struggles and the possibility of a form of biopolitics antagonistic to both the paradigm of sovereignty and the paradigm of the market and political economy and conditioned by the force of subaltern struggles. To give an analogy: Gramsci studies the emergence of hegemony as a particular modality of power in the bourgeois era and at the same time suggest the possibility of an antagonistic hegemony of the subaltern, different on form, content and practice.

It is true that most commentators do not pay enough attention to these tensions and dynamics in the work of Foucault. As already mentioned, this has led to a conception of biopolitics as disciplinary biopower which is rather schematic and misses the differences between discipline and security, between disciplinary power and biopolitics. In certain instances, such as the work of Giorgio Agamben and his particular conception of thanatopolitics,14Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer. Sovereign Power and Bare Life, translated be Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998. not even the distinction between sovereign and disciplinary power is maintained.

The main target of my article was exactly this kind of haste to cry out ‘biopolitics’ at the very mention of any attempt to discuss physical distancing measures and I wanted to suggest that it is possible to see the use of such measures, provided that they were suited to the needs of communities, as part of a broader collective effort to deal with the pandemic.

For me what is very interesting is that Foucault chose to move from a discussion of biopolitics towards the discussion of governmentality and from this to the discussion of care of self along with parrhesia and courage of truth. Both from the second, third and fourth volumes of the History of Sexuality and the lectures at the Collège de France after 1979, another research project emerges, one that has to do with a genealogy of forms of subjectivity and the relations between power and truth. I think that this research project is an expansion and also transformation of the previous research on disciplinary power and I disagree with an attempt to think of it as some kind of ‘neoliberal’ turn from the part of Foucault. Rather I believe that they point towards a highly original agonistic conception of human life that is more than pertinent today as it points towards the constant search for alternatives, the constant production of heterotopias, to use another notion from Foucault. As Foucault stressed in the last page of his manuscript his last 1984 lecture at the Collège de France:

But what I would like to stress in conclusion is this: there is no establishment of the truth without an essential position of otherness; the truth is never the same; there can be truth only in the form of the other world and the other life (l’autre monde et de la vie autre).15Michel Foucault, The Courage of the Truth (The Government of Self and Others II).Lectures at the Collège de France1983-1984, translated by Graham Burchell, London: Palgrave / Macmilla 2011, p. 340.

So when I suggested the notion of ‘democratic biopolitics’ I was more trying to think through Foucault the possibility of an alternative rather than be ‘philologically’ faithful to Foucault. That is why I made the tentative suggestion that we could possible think such an antagonistic form of democratic biopolitics, an alternative form of ‘caring for ourselves’ that would not lead to a dystopian biopolitics, by means of thinking it through notions from the later work of Foucault. One could describe it in the sense of a biopolitics beyond both disciplinary power and liberal ‘security’. And to remain within notions coming from the later work of Foucault, and the research project into the ‘art of governing’, I would even suggest that the question of a democratic biopolitics can be linked to the broader quest for a ‘communist governmentality’, namely the open question of transformative, participatory, experimental and democratic new practices of politics that would enable a potential subaltern self-government. Such a potential ‘communist governmentality’ points to one of the crucial questions that radical politics faces today: how to suggest not an alternative political discourse, but an alternative political praxis in order to avoid both sectarian self-isolation and full immersion into traditional electoral politics.

Consequently, I think that what I tried to describe as a democratic biopolitics is also pertinent to contemporary challenges in regards to the COVID-19 pandemic. I do believe that we need to think in terms of an alternative to both the neoliberal cynicism with its treatment of the poor and the vulnerable as ‘surplus populations’ and the coercive and disciplinary logic of the lockdown (and surveillance technologies), especially since it is combined with the constant exposure of those that cannot ‘stay home’ and the tragic lack of preparedness that led to mass deaths at care facilities and nursing homes. Such an alternative could be based on the understanding of the actual ‘thanatopolitics’ of neoliberal capitalism, that have to do not only with exposure to infection, but also with the ways that social inequality, precariousness and socio-economic stress increase the actual vulnerability of population, a fact tragically made manifest in the social determination of ‘underlying conditions’. Moreover, such an alternative would oppose the ‘suspension of sociality’ inherent in the very notion of ‘social distancing’ in favour of the emphasis on recreating conditions of sociality and care. Such a direction could take various forms: Bringing forwards demands for more equality, less precariousness, better environmental conditions and full access to health care, beginning with community oriented primary care; inventing alternative care and nursing practices to protect the most vulnerable; design safe practices at all fields beginning with workplaces; expand networks of solidarity; insist that public protest and expression are essential aspects of the collective ‘resilience’ of a society. In such a perspective, the notion of a collective ‘care for ourselves’ acquires a new urgency, especially since it points towards the need to struggle against the many ecologies of disease, exploitation and oppression that the reproduction of capitalist exploitation, from climate change to the many versions of the contemporary ‘housing question’. And of course it points towards the collective struggle to move from the temporary suspension of some economic activity towards a permanent process of social transformation.

It is here that one might point to various forms of experiences that can be used as points of reference. In my original intervention I used ACT UP as an example. One could also point to the Black Panthers and their ‘Survival Pending Revolution’ strategy.16Paul Alkebulan, Survival pending revolution: the history of the Black Panther Party, Tuscaloose: The University of Alabama Press. Paul Richards and Alex de Waal have emphasized the need to for a more social approach to public health during a pandemic, both making the community active and also understanding its context, emphasizing how it its necessary for communities to think like epidemiologists and for epidemiologists to think like communities.17Alex de Waal, New Pathogen, Old Politics, 3 April 2020, Boston Review, See also Paul Richards and Alex de Waal, ‘Coronavirus: Why lockdowns may not be the answer in Africa’, 15 April 2020,; Paul Richards, Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, London: Zed Books, 2016. Alan Sears recently made an important contribution suggesting the need for ‘health from below’ that ‘draws on the self-activity of vulnerable communities, taking charge of their well-being through mobilization and sharing knowledge’.18Alan Sears, ‘Health from Below in a Global Pandemic’, New Socialist. Ideas for Radical Change, 24 April 2020,

Some years ago Fredric Jameson used as examples of dual power ‘the way organizations like the Black Panthers yesterday or Hamas today function to provide daily services-food kitchens, garbage collection, health care, water inspection, and the like-in areas neglected by some official central government’.19Fredric Jameson (et al.), An American Utopia. Dual Power and the Universal Army, edited by Slavoj Žižek, London: Verso 2016, p. 4. And Alberto Toscano used this as a starting point for a conception of a potential dual biopower

A possible foothold for beginning to think transition concretely would then be to consider the crucial phenomenon of what we could call a kind of dual biopower — which is to say the collective attempt to appropriate politically aspects of social reproduction that state and capital have abandoned or rendered unbearably exclusionary, from housing to medicine.20Albero Toscano, ‘After October, Before February: Figures of Dual Power’, in Fredric Jameson (et al.), An American Utopia, p. 228

I believe that through such interventions we can think what I tried to describe as ‘democratic biopolitics’ not as a simple demand for public health interventions from the part of the State, but as constant processes of subaltern struggle and confrontation with the limits of contemporary neoliberal states’ response to the pandemic,21And this indeed offers a class perspective to the issues at stake, something that perhaps was not stressed enough in my original presentation as based upon collective militancy and self-organisation.

Panagiotis Sotiris is an adjunct faculty member of the Hellenic Open University and editorial board member of the Historical Materialism Journal.

  3 comments for “Democratic Biopolitics Revisited: A Response to a Critique

  1. I found Panagiotis Sotiris’ response to my article to be gracious, thorough, and clarifying.

    When I read Sotiris’ original piece, I was troubled because 1) his title strongly implied that democratic biopolitics were not-yet-realized, and 2) he seemed to take it as a given that we should try to bring them about. My worry about democratic biopolitics was never that democracy is necessarily corrosive or dystopian (I actually do share Sotiris’ appreciation for “the dynamic and relational character” of Foucault’s concepts). Instead, my thought was that democracy is a fairly dangerous word to invoke in the context of biopolitics, and that we should take care to ensure that we are fully reckoning with this danger. For example, in America, we have a political culture of what Sotiris would call “sectarian self-isolation and full immersion into traditional electoral politics.” In the past months, our democratically elected representatives—armed with sophisticated public statistics about how COVID impacts the rate of death, the rate of unemployment, the stock market, etc.—have governed in a manner that will lead to tens of thousands of needless deaths. These officials aren’t merely ‘doing nothing’; their actions are ending lives and ensuring that millions go hungry for years. I think it would be somewhat naive to dismiss this American political climate as ‘not a real democracy.’ Contemporary America is a historical form of democratic experience; it is democracy as we live it and breathe it in the present. I was worried that, in order to position ‘democratic biopolitics’ as a future ideal, Sotiris was paying insufficient attention to democracy as it is lived and practiced.

    I like Sotiris’ response because he has subtly refined what he means by democratic biopolitics, and this refinement has made his argument far more precise. He now speaks of “an antagonistic form of democratic biopolitics, an alternative form of ‘caring for ourselves’ that would not lead to a dystopian biopolitics.” I interpret the phrase ‘antagonistic form’ as an implicit acknowledgement of the dangers that accompany other forms of democratic biopolitics. More specifically, Sotiris’ response makes it clear that the “alternative form of ‘caring for ourselves’” that he describes have a critical relationship not only with authoritarianism but also with state democracy. The relevant question is no longer, ‘is democratic biopolitics possible?’; Sotiris implicitly acknowledges that democratic biopolitics is a historical fact. Instead, the real aim of Sotiris’ response is to attune us to “constant processes of subaltern struggle…based upon collective militancy and self-organisation.”

    I have one lingering question for Sotiris: Isn’t ‘biopolitics from below’ a much better name than ‘democratic biopolitics’ for the critical, militant, subaltern uses of biopolitics that he has in mind? I see two advantages to adopting the former term. First, it points us directly and unambiguously toward subaltern struggle. No one could mistakenly conflate ‘biopolitics from below’ with state politics, whereas this is a constant danger when we are speaking of democracy. Second, I’m not sure that the word ‘democracy’ helps us draw a meaningful continuity between all the subaltern struggles against the state that Sotiris invokes. Take, for example, the Black Panther Party’s ‘Free Breakfast for Children’ program. In this case, wouldn’t it be more accurate to speak of a ‘black nationalist biopolitics’ or a ‘Marxist-Leninist biopolitics’? The aim of this program wasn’t ‘democracy’ per se, but rather to nourish and strengthen black children so that they could eventually resist the American state that was actively working to guarantee their impoverishment. Throughout his response to my criticisms, Sotiris uses different names to invoke a whole slew of related practices of resistance. These names include ‘antagonistic democratic biopolitics,’ ‘communist biopolitics,’ and ‘dual power biopolitics.’ Each of these names would be appropriate for some of the specific historical circumstances that Sotiris endeavors to study, and inappropriate for others. By contrast, it seems to me that the continuity between the historical practices that Sotiris describes is that they are all local struggles that stand in antagonism with how the state exercises power. So why center ‘democratic biopolitics’ rather than ‘biopolitics from below’?

    • Bryan, perhaps one could suggest there is no real difference between democratic biopolitics and biopoltiics from below. Democracy is truly realised when it is, in fact from below.

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