Thursday, May 10, 2012

Biopower and You: A General Summary According to Michel Foucault

Right, so, biopower. I don't mean, like, ethanol fuel; I'm not talking literally about energy. I'm talking about the other kind of power. You know - power. Control. The ability to make things happen the way you want them to happen. And biopower is power over bodies. That's the "bio-" in biopower, clue is in the title.

It used to be, back in the day when there were kings and shit, they had power over your death - if you were a problem they would just fucking kill you, because fuck you I'm the king and I can do that. And that was more or less it. "Do what I say, because I say so. Just don't give me any reason to kill you, and everything will be fine." What were those things? Pay your taxes, worship the right God, don't attempt an uprising, and go fight places we need you to fight. In other words, things that kept the state in place and secure. Sometimes good kings would, I don't know, feed their people, but that was just so they didn't have hungry peasants all burning cottages and shit. As long as the king wasn't threatened, he didn't give two fucks about "it's so cold" or "clean drinking water" or "seriously we're hardly getting by on like 80 hours of farming a week and we could really use some ditches dug." Fuck whatever rabble his whiny subjects happened to be rousing at the time.

But eventually, kings began to figure out they could use power to create power. And the more we learned, the more the law could be used to create rather than destroy. With the advances in science and genetics and the discovery of evolution, we knew more about humanity than ever before, and slowly, power over death got replaced with power over life. The state stopped trying to just survive - now states are actively trying to create a healthy, productive populace. And you can't create a healthy, productive populace just by fucking menacing them with the death penalty all the time, not that some real assholes didn't try that route. No, now laws do a whole lot more than just condemn shit the state doesn't like - they decide what is normal and healthy and okay for people to do.

So what's the problem? "Healthier, happier people? More caring state? This sounds great!" And that's exactly the fucking problem. That sounds great, but what exactly is healthier and happier? Who gets to decide that? You? Your buddy Steve? Fuck you, and fuck Steve. Biopower is literally power over your body, my body, er'rybody's body; the state gets involved in everything - health, labor, education, your goddamn sex life, and it tells you what you can and can't, should and shouldn't do, and it backs it up with guns. And if you're all, "Hey, uh, I don't feel more healthy and productive," well there's an easy answer for that! "Oh, you don't? Hm... well, uh, how about fuck you. You just have the wrong ideas. Glad that's all cleared up!"

And biopower doesn't stop there - it's also power over the populace as a whole. The state doesn't want to just make you healthy, it wants to make us healthy. Oh, and hey, by the way, it gets to decide who "us" is. Hitler never could have pulled off the Holocaust back when rulers just had to "preserve the state." But as soon as he was all, "Oh, I'm doing it for the health of the nation! We have to clean things up! Make Germans better!" that's when the whole country jumped on board. He didn't pretend to be not racist. It was like the centerpiece of his policies. He just made racism sound like something the country had to do for its own good. And who doesn't want to do "good" for their country, or for humanity?

And now maybe you're thinking, "Oh! That's terrible! We have to stop electing people who abuse the power of the state!" Yeah, it's not that simple. What counts as 'abusing' power? What are the 'right' ideas? It hasn't even been fifty fucking years since "homosexuality" stopped being called a mental disorder in America. Who the fuck are you going to elect in 1960 to help homosexuals become "healthy and productive?" More importantly, who knew back then that the state was being abusive? 

If, tomorrow, some crazy lunatic got on TV and started ranting about how juggling is destroying America and fuck juggling, and enough people believed him, we would start electing politicians who promised us they would get jugglers off the streets, man, and make them do something productive for once. And then in fifty years, someone would come along and say, "Why can't we juggle?" And everyone would scoff and go, "Look at this fucking guy! Wants to juggle. Hey what are you, some kind of juggler? Huh?" And that's bad enough, but then we'd throw him in jail or a mental asylum, thanks to biopower, because we want to protect ourselves from that crazy juggler guy. That's super important here: we would be the ones putting him in jail. Sure, "the state" would do it, but because we elected a state that was anti-juggling and gave it the power to do things like imprison jugglers.

So the problem isn't just choosing the right kind of state; the problem is that we don't even know what "the right kind of state" is. We all have these ideas of right and wrong and normal and we choose a state according to those, and sometimes we fuck up what is right and wrong and normal. And when the state has the power to literally control what citizens do with their bodies, and we justify that power with "it's for your own good! and for everybody's good." There is no limit to what the state can justify, and if you don't like it, you must not want to be healthy. You must be broken. And you know what we can do with people who are broken, thanks to biopower? We can "fix" them. We can "fix" them by deciding what they learn and eat and do for a living and whatever else we want.

At bottom, biopower is what you get when human well-being suddenly becomes subject to the political whims of an imperfectly informed society, which (it turns out) is the only kind of society.


The Wikipedia page about biopower is, as of this writing, fucking terrible. So don't bother there, unless you're interested in the original lectures in which Foucault lays out the idea of biopower.

He first publishes about biopower in The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, though he discusses it only briefly in part 5 of that volume.


  1. Hey Bro,

    That was great. Just thinking, to what extent is this Mill's (Or Tocqueville if you want to be French about it) tyranny of the majority on steriods?

  2. Anonymous, well its the biopower part of it really. If you take a situation in, say, america, where half the population wants to hang the "baddies" (however thats defined, although usually its 'murderers' which is a definition of baddie I'm usually pretty comfortable with) thats not really biopower, its death power.

    The idea here is a bit more insidious and covers things like mental health and what not too. Very soft sorts of power that are not necessarily cohersive in the "I will violence you" sense, but rather a conditioning of bodies so they are more compliant and more productive (I think productiveness is an important part of this equasion by the way.).

    Take workplace psychology. Whats the aim here? Is it to help people feel happier and more content? No, not really, because the boss wouldn't pay for it if there was no benefit to him in it. Rather , workplace psychology is about using a health paradigm to condition compliant bodies to work harder and more efficiently for the pay thats given. I'm dead certain that if the thinking was 'keep your workers miserable to make them more efficient' workplace psychologists would be advising bosses to shout insults and play polka music over the speakers all day.

    Likewise with homosexuality, theres an idea of a "family unit" thats supposed to be the foundation of the reproduction of society. Of course under some thinking homosexuality disrupts this because , according to some , it prevents kids and blah blah blah (I'm not saying this thinking is true, in fact I think it absolutely isnt) so thus homosexuality is a threat to this production of society. As such homosexuality is treated as a sicknes (be it moral or spiritual in the case of the evangelicals) and thus must be treated, as well as prophylactics against the "spread" of homosexuality such as gay marriage. Now its all total bullshit when this type of thinking is put under the microscope of lived experience, but that doesnt stop power from functioning that way.

  3. ..well not so much "insidious".... death is pretty insidious too. Maybe "subtle" is a better word. Late night posting and all that.

  4. "Biopower To The People!" and we end up with garbage like NC's Amendment One so frightened rubes can vote on the civil rights of those pesky homosexuals who have the ruddy nerve to go homosexing all around the place.

    I think, to some extent we do know what the right kind of state is and don't give ourselves enough credit for knowing it. We at least know that bad, stupid states make law based on things other than informed decisions about about human well-being -- things such as the Bible, the Koran, and what self-styled Bible/Koran experts have to say about Bibles and Korans. I'm not saying secular constitutional representative democracy has all the answers. However, when it arrives at reasonable conclusions like the ones found in Lemon v. Kurtzman (and I mean the principles common to the decision and the dissenting opinions, not the ruling itself -- a dilemma which undermines my claim that we're on to something so don't look to closely at that part!), all we need to do is, you know, pay attention. Because if we paid attention and things worked like the diagram, we'd not be voting on the civil rights of a minority due to religious-based objections of the majority to the minority's, well, existence.

    We know, by force of logical argument and historical example, that states produce outcomes more beneficial to the health and productivity of society when they restrain from making liberty restricting laws based on religious intolerance. We have made it by Supreme Court ruling the law of the land ... and yet we ignore the law and unconstitutional initiatives are put to plebiscite to create chaos until the Supreme Court circles back around says, "Hey, y'all, remember when we said keep your religion out of government for your own goddamned good? Stop doing it wrong."

  5. Good write up. It seems incomplete, though, without discussing how single instances of really horrific torture were transformed into a lifetime of micro-tortures. Mabye it's a perspective thing, but while HoSv1 describes biopower, DnP describes how biopower is exercised. And, IIRC, the word biopower first appeared in DnP as well.

  6. ConcernedCitizenMay 15, 2012 at 2:51 AM

    Hmmm... I'm somewhat confused as to the range of topics that "Biopower" pertains to. Is it purely physical? In governmental terms this would include property rights, regulations on food production, the proverbial guns that (ultimately) keep everyone in line, etc. Or are we also talking about belief systems and moral values? In other words, is Biopower about The Body or The Body's latent Consciousness (or both)?

    I'm thinking it has to be about both - how could you possibly separate them? I guess what I'm really wondering is which is more emphasized. I tend to focus more on the mental aspects of societies: meme-tic (concerning memes?) transmission, media influence, cultural hegemony (now THERE'S an interesting sociological/philosophical theory)... In other words, why do people believe what they believe? And then, of course, the corollary question: how do their beliefs affect their society?

    I guess what I'm REALLY wondering (man, it's late): is Biopower just what I call Sociopolitical Economics? And if not... ?

  7. Shit, you know your surrounded by philosophers when the comments are long enough to be essays in their own right.