Biopower: A Concept Developed By Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault coined the concept biopolitics, or biopowerin the last section of the first volume of his History of Sexuality, from 1976. In this section, called “right of death or power over life”, he explains how in the last two centuries a step has been taken in the form of exercise power by States: previously power was based on the sovereign’s ability to give death, now it is based on the ability to manage life.

Thus, it is a power that not only threatens to dispossess property and ultimately life, but also control lifeto make it grow, organize and optimize it.

Biopolitics according to Foucault

The ancient form of power had in the afterlife, in death, a metaphysical justification for its earthly power. Biopower has its limit in death.

This is shown, for example, in totalitarian regimeswhich mobilize entire populations to wage war under the pretext of preserving the life of the group, while before people went to war they did so to maintain the political power of the lord or the sovereign.

The two forms of biopower

For Foucault, various advances in technology that culminated just before the French Revolution made it possible to lengthen and improve life while better controlling it. So, biopower began to be exercised in two different ways but connected to each other: the disciplines of the body and the controls of the population.

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Disciplines of the body

The disciplines of the body emerged in the mid-17th century, and focused on making an individual body strong and useful, understood as a machine. It is exercised by institutions such as education or the army, but also anatomy. They are systems in charge of mold the individual to integrate him into society and turn it into a useful element.

Thus, the educational system, for example, in addition to imparting a series of knowledge, is responsible for generating a series of habits and bodily attitudes, in the same way as the army.

Population controls

In the middle of the 18th century, population controls emerged. While body disciplines focus on the individual, population controls focus on the species. Bodies are studied as supports for collective biological processes. These are disciplines such as statistics, and previously unknown problems of birth control, mortality, longevity or the level of health of the population. We see how these are ways of exercising power that do not seek death, but rather manage life.

Thus, we go from conceiving the governed as subjects of law to conceive them as living beings. This has the consequence that while the old form of power contemplates human existence as legal, biopower contemplates it as biological. So, power is no longer based exclusively on law. Although the law continues to exist, this is one more element in a network of institutions (the family, the educational system, the army, medicine, etc.) that seeks to govern by regulating what is normal and adapting to it. to all individuals in society.

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Biopower thus also becomes a new framework for the sciences, which under this new paradigm are established as part of the network of institutions that exercise biopower.

The opposition to power

Faced with this, the opposition to power is based, according to Foucault, on the same biopolitical conception, since this opposition demands the possibility of living a full life, something previously unthinkable. Thus, the ideology of biopower even reaches resistance to power.

Our own conception of sex would be biopolitical. It is precisely sex, that unnameable sphere, which seems free of all political interference, where biopower manifests itself relentlessly.

Thus, common sexual practices, but also scientific conceptions about sex, would be a way to shore up the power balances of the status quo through sexual practice. We see here how for Foucault, knowledge systems generate what they try to describe, so that in their essence they are mechanisms of power.

Biopower after Foucault

Biopolitics has become, after Foucault, everything an academic discipline within fields such as political philosophythe philosophy of nature, sociology or political science.

Indeed, the critical framework created by Foucault has become more and more useful as technology penetrates deeper and deeper into biological structures to modify them, both at the molecular and anthropological levels. with the rise of cyborgs and transhumanism, generating a multitude of ethical and political problems. On the other hand, the transgression of the limit between technology and nature is central to issues such as climate change.

Today experts could be divided into two groups. On the one hand there are those who believe that every biological notion and every conception of nature is an instance of biopower, so that all politics would be within the framework of biopolitics. Thus, there would not be nature to protect but rather biopolitics to modify.

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On the other hand, there would be those who believe in a kind of positive biopolitics. Following a note by Foucault himself in History of Sexuality, this group believes that there is always something in nature that escapes biopower, for example in the most irrational and intimate vital impulses of the human being, or in the element of randomness present in the functioning of nature, which would occasionally escape biopolitical control mechanisms. For this group, the objective is to keep nature out of biopower by denouncing biopolitical excesses.

Bibliographic references:

  • Foucault, M. (2007). History of sexuality. 1st ed. Mexico, DF: Siglo XXI Editores.
  • Nilsson, J. and Wallenstein, S. (2013). Foucault, biopolitics, and governmentality. 1st ed. Huddinge: Södertörns högskola.