Tuesday, July 24, 2007

From biopower to biopolitics

From biopower to biopolitics

Rather than starting from a theory of obedience and its legitimating forms, its dispositifs and practices, Foucault interrogates power beginning with the 'freedom' and the 'capacity for transformation' that every 'exercise of power' implies. The new ontology sanctioned by the introduction of 'life into history' enables Foucault to 'defend the subject's freedom' to establish relationships with himself and with others, relationships that are, for him, the very stuff [matière] of ethics. Habermas and the philosophers of the Constitutional State are not wrong in taking Foucault’s thought as their privileged target because it represents a radical alternative to a transcendental ethics of communication and the rights of man.

Why should we look for the 'arcana imperii' of modernity within political economy? Biopolitics, understood as a government-population-political economy relationship, refers to a dynamic of forces that establishes a new relationship between ontology and politics. The political economy that Foucault talks about is neither the political economy of capital and work of classical economists, nor the Marxist economic critique of 'living labor.' It is a political economy of forces that is very close yet very distant from either of these points of view. It is very close to Marx’s viewpoint because the problem of how to coordinate and command the relationships between men, insofar as they are living beings, and those of men with 'things,' keeping the aim of extracting a 'surplus of power' in mind, is not simply an economic problem but an ontological one. It is very distant because Foucault faulted Marx and political economy with reducing the relations between forces to relations between capital and labor, with making these binary and symmetric relations the source of all social dynamics and every power relation. The political economy that Foucault talks about, on the contrary, governs 'the whole of a complex material field where not only are natural resources, the products of labor, their circulation and the scope of commerce engaged, but where the management of towns and routes, the conditions of life (habitat, diet, etc.), the number of inhabitants, their life span, their ability and fitness for work also come into play.'

...If power, in keeping with this description, is constituted from below, then we need an ascending analysis of the constitution of power dispositifs, one that begins with infinitesimal mechanisms that are subsequently 'invested, colonized, utilized, involuted, transformed and institutionalized by ever more general mechanisms, and by forms of global domination.'

Consequently, biopolitics is the strategic coordination of these power relations in order to extract a surplus of power from living beings. Biopolitics is a strategic relation; it is not the pure and simple capacity to legislate or legitimize sovereignty. According to Foucault the biopolitical functions of 'coordination and determination' concede that biopower, from the moment it begins to operate in this particular manner, is not the true source of power. Biopower coordinates and targets a power that does not properly belong to it, that comes from the 'outside.' Biopower is always born of something other than itself.

... What we need to emphasize is the difference of the principles and the dynamics that regulate the socialization of forces, sovereign power and biopower. The relations between the latter two are only comprehensible on the basis of the multiple and heterogeneous action of forces. Without the introduction of the 'freedom' and the resistance of forces the dispositifs of modern power remain incomprehensible, and their intelligibility will be inexorably reduced to the logic of political science. Foucault explains the issue in the following manner:

'So resistance comes first, and resistance remains superior to the other forces of the process; power relations are obliged to change to change with the resistance. So I think that resistance is the main word, the keyword, in this dynamic.'

5. ...He saw his work retrospectively as an analysis and a history of the different modalities through which human beings are constituted as subjects in Western culture, rather than as an analysis of the transformations of the dispositifs of power. 'Therefore it is not power, but the subject, that constitutes the general theme of my investigations.'

The analysis of power dispositifs should then begin, without any ambiguity, with the dynamic of forces and the 'freedom' of subjects, and not with the dynamics of institutions, even if they are biopolitical institutions, because if one starts to pose the question of power starting from the institution one will inevitably end up with a theory of the 'subject of law'. In this last and definitive theory of 'power' Foucault distinguishes three different concepts which are usually confused within a single category: strategic relations, techniques of government and states of domination.


The ethico-political struggle takes on its full meaning at the frontier between 'strategic relations' and 'states of domination,' on the terrain of 'governmental technologies.' Ethical action, then, is concentrated upon the crux of the relation between strategic relations and governmental technologies, and it has two principal goals: 1. to permit, by providing rules and techniques to manage the relationships established with the self and with others, the interplay of strategic relations with the minimum possible domination, 2. to augment their freedom, their mobility and reversibility in the exercise of power because these are the prerequisites of resistance and creation.

6. The determination of the relationship between resistance and creation is the last limit that Foucault’s thought attempted to breach. The forces that resist and create are to be found in strategic relations and in the will of subjects who are virtually free to 'control the conduct of others.' Power, the condensation of strategic relations into relations of domination, the contraction of the spaces of freedom by the desire to control the conduct of others, always meets with resistance; this resistance should be sought out in the strategic dynamic. Consequently, life and living being become a 'matter' of ethics through the dynamic that simultaneously resists power and creates new forms of life. In an interview in 1984, a year before his death, Foucault was asked about the definition of the relation between resistance and creation:

'Resistance was conceptualized only in terms of negation. Nevertheless, as you see it, resistance is not solely a negation but a creative process. To create and recreate, to transform the situation, to participate actively in the process, that is to resist.'


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