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Manifestations and Enablers of the Biopolitical State


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The substitution of one form of bondage for another does not, even in the view of the modern world order, suffice as liberation – those oppressed have no means to realize and utilize their faculties without restraint. Yet, the very order which, from its propaganda, purports to reject such a system, perpetuates it while placating the people through the brainwashed illusion of “freedom”. In the contemporary context, no faculties are repatriated to the oppressed when they are ‘freed’. Instead, the little agency they have continues to be stripped away under a veil of contentment. Two instances illustrate such a principle poignantly. Perhaps most apparently, the ‘freeing’ of colonies from colonizing Western powers was merely the exchange of political oppression for economic and social oppression. The crests that once occupied the tops of administrative buildings may not be British or French but economically, they are still being manipulated and stripped of their resources, and socially, they have internalized the inferiority they were forced to assume, a form of neo-colonialism and neo-imperialism relabeled freedom by the world order; many of the inhabitants are deceived of their oppression. The instance of the freed felon, another example, is solely the exchange of the suppression of mobility for socioeconomic oppression. When a felon walks out of his cell and outside the jailhouse doors, the public would term him a ‘free man’. While his mobility is generally unrestricted, he becomes entrenched in the lowest rungs of the social order. The law relegates him to a status where he is economically dead, in the most remedial of jobs without possibility of advancement, socially dead, dealing with the stigma of offending, and politically dead, stripped of his civic participation by the law. These instances and phenomena form a subset of a theory realized initially by Michel Foucault, a French philosopher with many influential works, which is termed generally, biopolitics. He defines biopolitics as:

[…] the set of mechanisms through which the basic biological features of the human species became the object of a political strategy, of a general strategy of power, or, in other words, how, starting from the eighteenth century, modern western societies took on board the fundamental biological fact that human beings are a species, (“Security, Territory, Population: One”, 16).

Although the population may not consciously realize it to be so, since its inception, biopolitics has chipped away at the life, in physical and other embodiments, of such populations. Because of the modern state’s usage of biopolitics, legitimized, furthered, and hidden behind the novel security apparatus, the population must be unpredictable and create insurrection within the state to free themselves of its totalitarian grip.

The inception of the modern state necessarily brought about biopolitical control, characterized by a radical departure from the control mechanisms employed by the ancient state. In the ancient state, the conception of power was similar to the Roman principle of patria potestas, to wit the idea that since a father was tantamount to the creation of a child, he had full right to order its destruction. The old order had the power to regulate the death of its subjects, a sanguine power, described by Foucault as, “the right to take life or let live,” (“The History of Sexuality,” 136). It had the ability to directly call for the extermination of a person, or indirectly call for such by exposing their life through armed service. Its power to control death was contingent on its security; when threats both internal and external in nature jeopardized the survival of the state, it mobilized its power. In ancient states, when an opposing army came to vanquish the state, it enlisted men of all ages in tests of blood. Similarly, when an individual subverted the state, especially in regard to its laws, it had the power to prescribe severe punishment. Jesus’ activities, as an example, were not regulated by the Roman state, but when subversion was deemed to have happened, he was executed. Such was the extent of the ancient state. The modern state extended in aspects and innovated in aspects from the ancient state, notably completely adopting the biopolitical viewpoint. The primary power of the state experienced a radical shift, as, “the ancient right to take life or let live was replaced by a power to foster life or disallow it to the point of death,” (“The History of Sexuality”, 138). The state has become fundamental to the life and prosperity of an individual, providing him education, health, tranquil, and other services. The tenets of human survival have, in the modern state, become the playthings of sovereigns, a political tool for their usage. Life is managed in such a way.

A secondary development, no less impactful, abetted this shift in power. In the ancient state, human beings were considered individual subjects. The state would target individuals for extermination from its ranks. However, in the modern era, the conception of an individual has all but disappeared. Groups of ‘individuals’, to the state, are merely a sole unit with variables that are manipulated to achieve a desired result – these factors are what Foucault terms the milieu (“Security, Territory, Population: One”, 35). In order to assess the optimal mode of action, sovereigns employed statistics and the human sciences to visualize the conditions of their subject populations, conducting censuses, psychology inquiries, among others. An individual is not valuable for his rights or his humanity, but only as an automaton of industrial output and, for sustainability concerns, a preserver of life through its various biological processes. From this valuation stem two biopolitical control mechanisms – capitalism and sexuality.

Capitalism, as a means of efficient industrial output for the state, in its quest for optimization, relies on the biopolitical management of laborers, adopting the former view of the individual. It necessitates that state, social, and political institutions work in tandem to ensure that each laborer has maximized output, that bodies were effectively inserted into the production apparatus.

Sexuality is at the crossroads of both functions of the individual; evidently, it serves to propagate the life necessary for state function, but also serves a keystone to the insertion of bodies into production. Foucault describes how classes of persons – women and children especially – were implanted in such a mechanism through their sexualization, the control by the state of their sexuality through public health campaigns and medicalization (“The History of Sexuality”, 146). Sexuality is a ruse that the state encourages as a means of biopolitics and as a furtherance of its own agenda. Sexuality and the procreation of workers is not the inherent interest of all beings, but surely is that of the state. Biologically, only woman and man can conceive a new generation, and thus the biopolitical state seeks for heteronormality, oppressing those whom are “deviant”, those of other sexualities, and who do not achieve such an end. This is merely one manifestation of sexuality’s control in global states. It also utilizes many more intersections, such as that of race, promoting racism and racially constructed hierarchy to meld the ancient conception of sanguinity with the novel concept of sexuality, as race ties to its propagation and its supposed blood purity. Although individuals may express differences in their properties, biopolitical control is exercised through the commonality of desire, namely that every individual has desire. That desire is constantly manipulated by the state – in the context of sexuality, making the population covet sex, in order to achieve its ends. Collective and individual desires can be pitted against one another to induce the correct result.

This manipulation also comports with the tendency of biopolitics to manipulate natural phenomena, ingredients so indispensable to the possession of life that they possess immense influence when tailored with. The impact of biopolitics is severely increased, and is defined by, the allowances of technology, serving two major functions. The modern state’s ability to act is predicated on technology; with it, it is able to gather data about populations and process it quickly. It is able to make informed calculations. It is also able to dispose of persons and manipulate its mechanisms in a much faster and more efficient way. It cannot be doubted that one of the main hindering factors of the ancient state was its decrepit technology that did not allow for the level of surveillance and data gathering possible in the contemporary era. Furthermore, military technology’s progression has rendered biological and political existence an intimate pair. The vanquishing of the ancient state did not equate to the extermination of a nationality, whereas the sophistication and lethality of modern warfare renders a state in tatters, with few of its previous citizens biologically intact. The quintessential example is Japan, with people whose fates were tied to the administration of government, but even lesser examples such as Islamic State militants illustrate the relationship. Biopolitics has changed the relationship and marred the lines between once-delineated bodies. Succinctly, Foucault notes the change:

For millennia, man remained what he was for Aristotle: a living animal with the additional capacity for a political existence; modern man is an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being in question, (“The History of Sexuality”, 143).

The development of biopolitics has not occurred in a vacuum. For such a radical shift in policy, a radical shift in enforcement carried with it. The inception of the modern state reformed the ailing disciplinary system and instituted what is known as the security apparatus. It may be stated, as an axiom, that the state generally seeks to expand its powers. Throughout human history, sovereigns have used three primary enforcement mechanisms, with varying circles of influence that have augmented in size over time. They do not necessarily replace each other, but compound and integrate with one another. The most primordial mechanism was the law. The function of the law, according to Foucault, is to delineate, in the realm of all possible human action, which actions are impermissible and solely that (“Security, Territory, Population: Two”, 69). Its scope is paltry, requiring express prohibition to take up control, and unable to foresee future development. Its usage was not erroneous – with the given surveillance technology, law was the sole modality. After requisite developments, sovereigns refined the disciplinary system, which further restricted the realm of permissible action by mandating that certain actions be performed, in an affirmative sense. Whereas in a law system, that which was not prohibited was permitted, in a disciplinary system, that which was not permitted was prohibited. In such model, the circle of influence is expanded, restricting the faculties of persons even more. Security is a complete divergence in means, but a more effective approach to the ends. Security, instead of emphasizing express delineation, removes the constraints of conduct, opting for a laisser-faire model. Holistically, however, it is the antithesis of laisser-faire principles. The security apparatus relentlessly collects data and information on the individual happenings of an individual – their location, communications, finances, and reacting appropriately to temporal events through deployment of its mechanisms based on calculations of the circumstances. This is what is known as the ruse of freedom, and specifically liberalism, as discussed by Foucault (“Security, Territory, Population: Two”, 70).

Freedom does not equate to liberation, in fact perceived freedom is merely an entrenchment into the security apparatus, both a placation element and a necessary ingredient in the security apparatus’ correct functioning. As an example, many who subscribe to the world order consider the United States as a ‘free country’, and yet the security apparatus is ever present with institutions like the National Security Administration, collecting communications data from millions upon millions of persons. Devices are implanted into persons to record their movement and thought, organizations are created as tests of loyalty, and mechanisms are contrived in every way. From the efficacy of a security apparatus, it necessarily follows that it comprises the largest scope, requiring micromanagement of persons and timely reaction to each event, whether it be to permit it or arrest its continuation. Importantly, as a differentiating factor between discipline and security, the former seeks to delimit whereas the latter seeks to calculate. The security apparatus does not necessarily command action forthright but is a reactionary force with great capability. It has developed a body of philosophy to guide its calculation, to wit utilitarianism. No longer is the realm of power to prescribe an action and assign it a certain morality, rather it is to let the action happen and ex post decide its morality. Populations are denied agency; each and every action is reversible by state mechanisms, and with the monitoring of actions by the state, it is effectively the state who is the agent – it is solely them who decide to permit or to restrict. No action is privileged. Thusly, instances such as variolation emerge, conceited calculations between the risk of side effects and the potential guard against infectious disease in regard of the individual circumstance; it is a question of how best to maximize time of exploit, not ruled by any maxim.

The modern state is a police state – perhaps on face not a draconian, totalitarian form of policing, and yet, that is exactly what it is, with a violent personality, to be sure, but also a subtle personality, both of which have great efficacy. Foucault describes the function of police as maintaining the splendor of the state (“Security, Territory, Population: Twelve”, 409). Policing has three ends, namely to ensure the size of the population, to ensure their potential to be beneficial to the state, and that they exercise such potential. Education is one of the primary policing mechanisms. Education, not only tied with one’s ability to obtain resources in a state-controlled environment, is a propagandistic manipulation of desire. No force necessarily teaches objectively; the information populations are ‘educated’ about is filtered through the systems of the sovereign to induce future action. Persons are told and believe; cognition is impossible, as on a meta level, that system is again instituted solely by the state. From the moment of conception, state information pours into the minds of billions. The state is agreeable because it has told the population it is so.

There is also the mechanism of agricultural policy, concerned primarily with the well-being of the population. Scarcity or glutton, each is an incentive for following the state program. While in the disciplinary context, price controls and regulation were imposed, the security apparatus, consistent with capitalism, saw the introduction of market rate pricing. The state does not seek to micromanage the price and ensure a bounty of food, rather it reacts accordingly with the market to ensure the optimal supply of food exists – enough for sustenance, but always a desire for more. In the context of the security apparatus, policing serves as the arm that swoops in to manipulate; its object is control. Policing, as a term that generalizes all state mechanisms, is what differentiates the security apparatus from the concept of the state of nature – totalitarian anarchy, in a sense. As related to biopolitics, the populations are placated by liberalism while biopolitical control endlessly expands, seeping into each crevice of the lives of the population.

The gravity of the condition of biopolitics cannot be ignored – its oppressive force denies populations of their very life. Under the security apparatus, populations are voluntarily oppressed. The ruse of liberalism is effective – populations feel they are gaining ‘freedom’, yet their agency is revoked. Their entrenchment in the conception of freedom is truly what binds them. Many have argued for the relevancy of the social contract theory, proposed by philosophers ranging from Locke to Hobbes, notably describing how persons retain some of their rights, or are guaranteed natural rights. In the modern world, however, the state is the ultimate possessor of these rights; the social contract is invalid. Aging grandparents will recall events like the Holocaust. The Nazi state, in an expression of biopolitics, exercised first its ability to control life by instituting a system of ghettos and then its primordial power of death, executing millions of members of the Jewish class. Their life and how it progressed was not determined out of their own agency, but by state calculation; they had only the semblance of control. Populations become detrimentally altruistic under such regime, allowing themselves to be manipulated and extorted for the furtherance of the state. Under a biopolitical regime, their humanity is revoked. They are not humans, bags of bones and flesh with unique properties, but laborers, prisoners, slaves to the regime, each as disposable as the next, moving together. The characteristics of the individual are subsumed under those of the cohort, the group. Furthermore, the necessity of biopolitics to divide populations into class strata results in the propagation of oppression for those unfortunate, deemed more disposable and inutile than the rest. More importantly, however, is the death and extermination of populations that occurs under biopolitical regimes, both non-physically and physically. In exploring the definition of ‘death’, it is necessary to explore the contrast with what is generally regarded as ‘life’. If this question is explored in a philosophical vacuum, to wit without the influence of especially the conception of the state, it is garnered that death is defined by the lack of agency – once a being loses their volition, regardless of if it is of mobility, of choice, or other, they are dead. In the biopolitical state, populations are dead. As explored previously, they lack all agency. Future philosophers, such as Giorgio Agamben, have termed this state ‘bare life’ – a state in which a being may be physically alive, but practically dead. Without liberation, populations live in an almost Kafkaesque condition, merely contributing mindlessly to industrial process until physical death removes them from the planet.

Physically, death occurs as well. Under the compounding effect of the development of enforcement regimes, the security apparatus possesses the primordial power to choose between life and death. This power continues to be expressed, notably in the execution of felons, and in regimes with less ‘freedom’, as the world order would term it, execution of dissent. More importantly, the emphasis on calculation has led to the genocide of populations. People are no longer culled, but populations with common characteristics are exterminated. When calculation deems a certain population unfit, their genus – hence the term genocide – is massacred, such as the black population, the Cambodian population, the Albanian population, and many more. These consequences are inescapable. For the lower members of the social strata, they suffer the complete reduction of the person, and more often than not, widespread physical death. For those in highr strata, their bondage is psychological. Through their reception of comparatively positive treatment, they become further entrenched, and arguably more vulnerable to the ways in ways the state exploits them, especially becoming stripped of their mental labor.

This does not suggest, however, that there is no recourse to dismantling the oppressive forces of the state. While the population in the status quo is subservient to the state, it is not inherently the state, thus if certain modes of action are correctly executed, the demise of the state may not cause the death of the population. In order to combat the subjection to bare life and death, the populations of the world must disrupt calculation by being unpredictable and attacking the modes of policing internally. The security apparatus may seem gaudy and insurmountable, yet its action is predicated on its ability to react to action, and such premise is enabled by its ability to make optimal decisions through calculation. Without the ability to conceive of and manipulate individuals as a population, the tenets of the security apparatus fall.

The population must disallow generalization; it must dismantle the conception of the population, and force inefficiency and rupture through the forced conception by the state of the once-population as individuals. The population must act as extremely autonomous individuals, who, in every instance, make different choices. The population must express no common desires; each must project the most extreme version of his personality. Commonality is death, difference is revolutionary. Unpredictability also entails the shift of personality, complicating the issue of calculation for the state. No longer should an individual be a constant set of variables nor a set in constant flux, but constantly fluxing sets of constantly fluxing variables. The issue must be made complex on both a horizontal and vertical scale. When the state makes inefficient considerations, its control drastically is decreased, enabling vulnerability to further action. It must be remarked, however, that general rejection of the state does not suffice as a solution; this is commonality, negative in nature, but commonality nonetheless, a regularity that the state has eras of experience exploiting.

The second mechanism is to cause internal chaos. Radicals will immediately question the emphasis on such method, vouching for external rebellion, to wit revolution. However, the most effective modality is to distance the population from the state, not combat it outright. In a revolution, blood will be lost, martyrs will die. Revolution is not an abnormal occurrence for the state, in fact the state is strengthened. Revolution is just another occurrence of the primordial power of control of death; the blood spilled stinks of the ancient state, of discipline. In revolution, dissent is suppressed, and old conceptions come about again. To live, but to live in a sort of defiance is crucial to opposition of the state. After all, battles are not won by those in a casket, but by those still standing. The advantage of internal chaos is twofold. By disrupting the policing powers of the state, the revolutionaries are liberated from that control, causing the slow dismantling of the state, and the degradation of the security apparatus. Furthermore, the blind, who are oblivious to their death, are revived, are freed as a secondary result, as the rejection of one institution affects all who were previously under it. Schools, hospitals, prisons, communications centers, military bases, administrative buildings, and other mechanisms of control must be disrupted by those who contribute to their current success, inhibiting both their physical integrity and accessibility, but also their administrative integrity. Each method of policing must be excised one by one. In two such steps, the state can be toppled; control defines the state, and without it, the state is vanquished. Remark, however, that the institution of a utopian state, as many revolutionaries end up doing, destroys the work of its ancestors. A state inherently seeks to expand its control and does not restrain itself save for insurmountable technological limitation. The current existence of the security apparatus makes it that a state will turn quickly biopolitical, the consequence which was fought against.

In the contemporary world, revolutionaries have been successful in the overthrow of governments; there are too many examples to recite. Their revolutions have been plagued, however, with their aftermath, the institution of another state. These are not to be viewed as failures, but as partial successes. When the legitimacy of the state is duly considered, it is truly an absurd creation. Few would wish to be oppressed into a lethal end, exploited in lofty systems, relinquishing all semblance of agency, following an entity blindly wherever it desires. Degradation and death must be reversed – dismantling the state can be the only way out of a biopolitical, security-based state.

 

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. Security, Territory, Population Lectures at the College De France, 1977-78. Vol. 1, ser. 1, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Foucault, Michel. Security, Territory, Population Lectures at the College De France, 1977-78. Vol. 1, ser. 2, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Foucault, Michel. Security, Territory, Population Lectures at the College De France, 1977-78. Vol. 1, ser. 3, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Foucault, Michel. Security, Territory, Population Lectures at the College De France, 1977-78. Vol. 1, ser. 12, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Foucault, Michel. Security, Territory, Population Lectures at the College De France, 1977-78. Vol. 1, ser. 13, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1, ser. 5, Vintage, 1990.

 

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