In today’s article I want to embark on a journey about bio-politics, how it came to be and what it might hold for our future?
In the government of life; Foucault on biopolitics and neoliberalism;
He sets out in part 1; The nomos of neoliberalism, the following;
The fourth age of security contains certain challenges that arise with governments and the concept of govern-mentality. Following this line of thought he said; “Sovereignty is exercised within the borders of a territory, discipline is exercised on the bodies of individuals, and security is exercised over a whole population”. The fourth age of security is marked with complex issues like a pandemic itself and, therefore, gives a new meaning to what is traditional meant for government. Important to try to distinct on his one sided notion of (bio)power is to give light to what the differences are between necessary power structures and those over-regulated social power networks that do more harm then good in today’s social systems.
What is first important to highlight is the way in which ‘power‘ relates to the ‘subject’ and ‘knowledge‘. If power is meant to have the power to stop someone else from doing something, then power is one sided. Besides this direct (bio) power there is also productive power and impressive power according to Foucault. Then there is also the notion that since the Enlightenment period social contract thinkers argued that ‘if there is no ruler, anarchy will reign’, making a governor a necessary evil. So one could debate this philosophically saying for example that with enough self-discipline people do not need their governments and strict protocols to prevent them for spreading a disease cause they can govern themselves. However, because this is hardly the case in The Netherlands (as example), we live, according to Foucault in a (hyper)normalized world in which social actors are formed by the rule of law (Max Weber) and the norms of the group the individuals refer too.
Otherwise ‘normalized judgement’ would not be possible if there would be no group reference. So we all row the same boat, but we stopped rowing, figuratively speaking. And we stopped rowing because according to Foucault the process of rationalization and objectification which transforms civilians into subjects is what gives the governor juridical power, but most importantly, bio-power, direct control on actual daily movement.
So by following above’s theorem, govern-mentality is meant in the sense that government nowadays is not a political activity in common and traditional understanding of politics. Hereby saying as a side-note that in the event of an pandemic threat like the Corona virus the government is more likely to show direct forms of bio-politics, like one can see directly by the 1,5 social distancing protocol, mandatory isolation and whatever one might imagine to justify certain forms of biopolitics that might do more harm then good.
Therefore, liberalism or neoliberalism as we know it of the experiment of the past 30ish years is now locked into a mode it isn’t made for. In previous articles I used the examples of ‘run away capitalism’ and ‘the peacock effect’.
These concepts fall in line with what is meant by the Italian theory of Antonio Negri, Giogio Agameben and Roberto Espositio as a ‘government of life’. A government of life itself, the biology of what makes a lifestyle possible is in a way shaped and formed by governmental loans, policies and are own consent, off course, to such incentives.
Bio-politics speaks in that way of the actual behavioural actions we can possibly make as social actors in society composed of other agents that are imposed with similar governmental restrictions. Following social functionalism or structuralism by Emile Durkheim, one could argue that society absolutely needs regulation, social norms and values in order to have a worthwhile functional identity in society, and there holds some truth in this by stating Ubuntu; ‘I am, because you are’, I am only what I am cause of the interactions I have and, therefore, restrictions I have by the freedoms of other social actors. However, the question remains if the neoliberal experiment of the past 30ish years is still a valid strategy? Are the peacocks meant to survive or are we highly disengaged from the real economy, from the real world by wanting to go back to ‘normal’ while the domino downfall haven’t even started yet due to manipulating the financial markets again from the real economy. One could then beck the question if today’s impact of bio-politics marks the end of a neoliberal era, giving way to a multitude of scenario’s for a new world or reinforce the argument for further advancement of bio-politics for the Utilitarian sake of all versus the sacrifice of the individual.
So the power of bio-politics can especially now be felt during the Corona crisis. The threat of this is that it could corrupt, the corpus, the body of government itself into a hegemony of policy. Instances in which martial law threatens fundamental universal rights for the sake of Utilitarianism a.k.a. the greatest good for all . An example is that privacy laws can be overruled by the collective ‘threat’ of a virus, calling in martial law when a society goes into further lock-down when a likely new wave sets in, setting up the stage for obvious radical reform of socioeconomic systems.
What you get then is a bureaucratized apparatus that has great control on the possible and literal actions one can make out of ‘safety’ concerns. One could question the legitimacy of this level of control and the way governments are managing expectations and risks for a virus which only threatens a section of the population that falls behind the working class. Disrupting a healthy, resilient working class could be the bigger calamity of the near future. All while knowing that these fear based policies that come from such calamities might turn in the favour of the ones in power to gain more and more (biological and juridical) power. This is something that has yet to be seen and how far governments will go in sacrificing individual rights for the survival of the collective. It could, for example, be used for the argument of a global corporate government executing direct control and action in which calamities are already globalised in an increasingly interconnected world. It could give rise to such a global institution that could manipulate the world into a new normal when abnormal and unwanted scenario’s are at play.
A future outlook that takes bio-politics into its extreme is perhaps the Borg in Star-trek in where cyborgs are serving one queen in a huge ant like, hive mind. Govern-mentality of life is literally taking over by one central command for the argument of safety and security for all. Artificial intelligence could be set into this viewpoint by arguing that we need a higher intelligence to govern a globalised world when wicked issues on the global stage outclass any human think tank or group. We could easily speculate a scenario of bio-politics with more advanced bureaucracies and technologies to influence direct actionable control in people their daily life through their bodies and gadgets, like drones restricting your movements for example.
However, bio-politics is also very subtle and subliminal. Depending on the degree of consciousness one brings into the operation of a day you can say our phones, laptops, tv’s already influence our actual daily life in how we think, feel and, therefore, act. Through advertisement we are made to think through subtle forms of communication how we should think and act in certain markets, but also other social settings like schools and other institutions like the army directly influence our lives as social and institutional actors by enforcing code of conducts and what not.
However, even though, there exist more and more technology to directly influence the way we act in daily life, we remain in theory the masters of our own fate, the sailors of our ships, the seating captains of our bodies. Not just in this daily physical world by finding discipline over the impulses of the body and in that pursuit finding more control over bodily fears those in power like to abuse, is it also the dream world we can learn how to navigate. The subliminal world, which is the way to others, through whatever medium exists today in the landscape of bio-politics. Without being the master of our Self, our mind, we let someone else choose who we identify with and then the body will just follow.
I have written before about the differences between mechanical man and conscious man. Mechanical man just sets in with the routine and preps himself for the cyborg he or she can become, being the ultimate servant of his or hers governor. A more conscious man or woman does not settle in for the lures and temptations of the body to just survive. The mystery of the body is that the spine, for example, is not made to be fixed in a chair, but is made to dance, to jump and be unpredictable. So when I try to understand the topic of bio-politics we have to admit our own alienation from the mystery of the body and recognise the power we give to those that seek the govern-mentality of other man’s life.
In the end, only individuals can master the mind and the body themselves, and it remains a question of who we want to be in the future dealing with the challenges that rise ahead of us now.
Thanks for the read,
Hope it was an interesting one,
All the best,