I’ve written about biopower before and I’m not too fond of rehashing, doing the same shit more than once, because it’s just lazy to do that. That said, I’ll reiterate some stuff on biopower because this essay is going to be about the current state(s) of affairs.
Right, to jog your memory, biopower has to do with how power is exercised on people, with particular emphasis on their health, hence the two components, bio and power. It’s connected to discipline, but it’s not the same thing. Michel Foucault (242) provides a concise definitions in ‘‘Society Must Be Defended’: Lectures at the Collège de France 1975–1976’, first for discipline:
“I would say that discipline tries to rule a multiplicity of men to the extent that their multiplicity can and must be dissolved into individual bodies that can be kept under surveillance, trained, used, and, if need be, punished.”
And then for biopower (242):
“[T]that the new technology that is being established is addressed to a multiplicity of men, not to the extent that they are nothing more than their individual bodies, but to the extent that they form, on the contrary, a global mass[.]”
To summarize this, discipline has to do with exercising power on people, disciplining their bodies, individually, making them docile, whereas biopower has to do with kind of the same thing, but as a mass of bodies, rather than as individual bodies. They are connected to one another, or dovetail to one another, as Foucault (242) puts it, but they are, nonetheless, distinct from one another. That said, it’s hard to differentiate them in actuality, because they’ve become intertwined. In his (242) words:
“[I]t does dovertail into [discipline], integrate it, modify it to some extent, and above all, use it by sort of infiltrating it, embedding itself in existing disciplinary techniques.”
But what is biopower really about then? Foucault explains this well in volume one of ‘History of Sexuality’ (1978 translation by Robert Hurley). For him (144), it’s:
“[A] power whose task is to take charge of life needs continuous regulatory and corrective mechanisms.”
But, it’s not about deciding when someone’s life ends, as he (144) goes on to add:
“It is no longer a matter of bringing death into play … but of distributing the living in the domain of value and utility.”
The keywords here are: distribution, life, value and utility. Anyway, he (144) further clarifies this by adding that:
“Such a power has to qualify, measure, appraise, and hierarchize[.]”
And that (144):
“[I]t effects distributions around the norm.”
Again, it’s about keeping people alive, not about killing them, because it’s not about displaying power “in its murderous splendor”, as he (144) goes on to emphasize. In addition to the already mentioned keywords, norm is yet another word to keep in mind. In summary, what we get from this is a focus on the administration of life, making sure that people’s lives are efficient, that they are optimized, so that they have the greatest utility. It’s not about me, you or anyone in particular. It’s about how me, you and anyone matches the norm that is supposed to yield the greatest utility. Simply put, it’s about min-maxing, about minimizing anything deemed undesirable, what’s considered to deviate from the norm, while maximizing what’s deemed desirable, what’s considered to be the norm, because it’s supposed to yield the best results, to have the greatest utility, not for me, not for you, not for anyone particular, but for everyone in general.
I may have led you astray, just a bit, when I pointed out that it’s not about killing people because, well, it’s isn’t about killing people, but it’s not against killing people either, unless, of course, it yields less than optimal results, if the utility takes a hit. As Foucault (136-137) points out, you’d think that there’d be less bloodshed with the decline of sovereign rulers, for example the French kings or the Russian Czars, but, well, that’s not the case. What’s particularly interesting about that is the cynicism of it, how it’s not, no longer, just about warding off outside threats, about protecting the sovereignty of the state, which happened to be the same as protecting the sovereign, because the sovereign is the state, but also about warding off inside threats, about making sure that things run smoothly, yielding the best possible results, as he (136-137) points out. This means that everyone is expendable if necessary, if it’s deemed to yield the best results for the greatest number of people, that is to say for the population. This is why he (137) states that:
“Wars … are waged on behalf of the existence of everyone; entire populations are mobilized for the purpose of wholesale slaughter in the name of necessity: massacres have become vital.”
Gilles Deleuze explains the rationale of this well in ‘Foucault’ when he (92) points out that it’s about the survival of the population, not as subjects of a sovereign, against some outside invaders who do it at the behest of some other sovereign, because the sovereigns don’t really care about the population, as such, except, perhaps, as people who they can tax, but as that population, against “a toxic or infectious agent, a sort of ‘biological danger’.”
So, to keep this short, to not go on some wild tangent, as I’m tempted often to, think of the modern state and its population as a social body and the pre-modern state and its population as the body of the sovereign (the emperor, the king, the duke, the count, the baron etc.). In other words, when you have a feudal or an absolutist system, the vast majority of people are just nobodies. The bad thing is that they are nobodies. The good thing is that they are nobodies. For the rulers, it matters not which territory and which people they rule over, inasmuch as they do, as long as they do, because that’s how they make their money. There’s that indifference that the rulers have when it comes to the people. The state exists as long as the ruler exists as the ruler, what Foucault calls the sovereign, is the body. The ruler is, of course, replaceable, but that doesn’t prevent the ones replacing the previous rulers from expressing that, that they are the body of the state. The modern state is not like that as the body is the social body, the population, which, of course, is no one in particular, not me, not you, not anyone. To get to the point, like a body, the social body must make sure it stays healthy, to repel and exterminate any threats, by any means necessary.
To make more sense of this, to really make sure you get this, you aren’t making sure that the sovereign stays on the throne, that his or her body stays healthy, but making sure that the social body stays healthy. So, the thing is that it’s not about this or that person, someone important, but about everybody, albeit, potentially, at the expense of anybody, no matter how charming, loving, affectionate and what not that person may be, if that person poses a threat to the health of the social body, that is to say everybody that is, nonetheless, nobody. That means that whatever it may be that poses a danger to the social body, be it actual or potential, is treated like a parasite, a virus or a cancer. So, just like an individual body, the social body will act accordingly to get rid of the parasite, the virus or the cancer, whatever you want to call the threat. If it’s necessary, it will result in dismembering or disfiguring the social body, which, simply put, means hurting people, killing them if necessary, getting rid of parts of the population if need be. The thing is that it’s all calculated, statistical, worth doing, or so to speak, inasmuch it saves the body, hence the vital aspect of it, and/or makes it sure that the body is healthy, operating at its maximum capacity, yielding the greatest utility, hence the min-maxing aspect of it.
Now, of course, this is not just about people’s health, as such, even though that’s certainly crucial to this, because a healthy body is a productive body, resulting in minimal input and maximal output, but also about other forms of health. How’s that? Well, maybe I’m going too far with this, considering that I’m riffing with this, not consulting Foucault or anyone else that some may think I should, but, yeah, I think the health of the social body is not just about how healthy people are, be it me, you or anyone in particular, because putting too much emphasis on health, let’s say at the expense of the economy, is only likely to have a detrimental effect on people’s health, maybe not right now, but in the long run. My point is that you have to take all kinds of things into consideration, which is why I pointed out that it’s all very calculative, very statistical.
We’ve been told to get used to the new normal, which means health first. No, not your health, but the health of the population. Does that sound familiar? If it does, that’s because there’s nothing really new about it. That’s biopower baby! This is exactly why biopower is particularly relevant in 2020. Currently all the decision making revolves around the health of the population, not my, your, or anyone else’s health, at least not in particular.
Now, to be clear, I’m not taking any sides, for or against. So, in short, all the measures taken to combat the virus have to do with biopower, with administering the health of the population. This is why I, you or anyone else in particular don’t matter. Some people object to various restrictions, like how many people can be in the same room or area of a building, because it ruins their livelihoods and, by proxy, the livelihoods of others.
For example, if you run a cafe, a bar, a restaurant, a theater, a cinema, a venue, a museum or the like, having certain expenses that you manage to cover and make a certain profit, you may not be able to run that place with a lower capacity, at least not for long. You are left with two choices: run the place until it runs out of money or close the place down. The end result is the same to the people involved. They are going to be out of jobs. That also affects others as companies that provide their companies with what they need also take a hit. That hit might not be considerable, as places come and go, no biggie, but when it affects all or nearly all of the businesses that they cater to, it’s going to be considerable, which, in turn, results in more people being out of jobs. That’s going to have an adverse effect on their livelihoods, on the livelihoods of a lot of people, which will impact their health adversely. How badly will it affect their health? Well, that’s probably going to be hard to assess, because it depends what they are used to and how the situation changes that. They may get some income if the society happens to have a system for such, but that’s probably going to be less than what they are used to. They might also get nothing or they might not qualify for such. Be as it may, it will likely cause a lot of problems for a lot of people. They were hardly rich when they had a source of income, so imagine how things will be for them without a source of income.
Anyway, the point is that the social body, i.e. the state, deems these parts of the body expendable. In other circumstances these parts of the body might be prioritized. Those jobs of those people would be protected, possibly at the expense of some other part or parts of the body, because they are important to the health of the social body, because they are of great utility. It’s just that now they are seen as expendable. That’s because they are viewed as “a toxic or infectious agent, a sort of ‘biological danger’”, as Deleuze (92) puts it. There’s nothing personal about it, because there’s nothing personal about biopower.
One could assess the data, to point out that the current situation affects only certain parts of the social body, so that the older you are and the more pre-existing conditions you have, the more your health is at risk, and the same the other way around, so that the younger you are and less pre-existing conditions you have, the less your health is at risk, but that’s beside the point, even though, roughly speaking, that’s how it is under these circumstances. We could swap this current virus with something else, so that the parts of the social body affected by it would be different from what they are now, the point being that biopower makes it so that certain parts of the social body are expendable under certain circumstances. I guess it’s actually more apt to say that certain parts of the social body become expendable, because the circumstances do change, changing what parts of the social body are deemed expendable at any given time.
You may feel the urge to object to this, to point out that your health is being neglected, if, for example, you happen to one of the people now without a job, but, as I pointed out already, that doesn’t matter, because you don’t matter, because you are seen as one of the expendables. Your job doesn’t matter because that job is quite literally deemed to pose a biological danger, carrying an infectious agent, which poses a threat to the social body. That may, of course, anger you, because that social body is no one in particular. It’s like being told that your job, whatever it is that you more or less depend on, is no longer to be allowed following a risk assessment, because, overall, it may lower the life expectancy of the population by this or that much, while the positive effects on the economy are only this or that much. While that may well be the case, it ignores the individual entirely, which isn’t going to go well with the those individuals because they’ve been deemed expendable. The worst thing is, I reckon, that it’s not a big fuck you, to you, being told that it’s you, and only you, who is going to get axed. If it was about you, at least there’d be something personal to it. It’s like when someone expresses their hatred of you because then at least that person acknowledges you, that your existence or non-existence matters to to that person. That’s not the case when it’s about biopower.
We can, of course, flip this on its head. One could, for example, also point out that certain parts of the population are treated as expendables, not in the sense that they have to give up their jobs, but because they cannot give up their jobs. The most obvious candidates here are those working in health care, namely doctors and nurses. It probably depends on the jurisdiction, but, to my knowledge, health care professionals have to work in health care if there is a major health crisis, meaning that even if they are no longer working in health care, they may be assigned to it, because they have the necessary expertise in that field. They can’t really give up their jobs, even if they wanted to.
Now, some may wish to object to that, noting that those jobs in health care involve certain risks and they get the best protection against such risks, because it only makes sense that they do. They might also add that those people are already compensated for those risks and have chosen to pursue such careers. Okay, okay, I agree with that, albeit it’s not exactly that clear cut.
There are also others who cannot give up their jobs, not because the state would force them to work, but because their and possibly their household livelihood depends on it. These would be the people working in manufacturing, logistics and retail. There’s a constant need of food and all kinds of everyday goods, such as toilet paper and tooth paste, and so you need people who produce, transport and sell it, to satisfy that constant demand. They can’t work from home. They have to be there and likely have to deal with other people who do the same because that’s how manufacturing, logistics and retail function. You can probably minimize the risks, but there’s only so much you can do. They can’t stay at home and hunker down, ordering what they need to be delivered to their doorstep, while waiting for things to change, because they are the people who cater to the people who can do that, because they are the people who make that possible.
Now, you could object to what I just pointed out. I mean, they could just quit those jobs, to not have that risk. Then again, as I pointed out, they probably do what they do not out of love for their job, but because that’s what they can do in order to get ahead in life, to have a better life, for themselves and for their family, so it’s not exactly a real option for them. They’ve probably calculated how that works, how they make more by working, now and in the future, than they would while unemployed, while searching for a job that they could do, which is only likely going to be just another job in manufacturing, logistics or retail. That’s the know-how they have, which means that it’s only likely that they get employed again in those fields. Sure, they might be able to get further qualifications through studies, but studying also costs and you have be accepted to study. So, yeah, quitting their job is not really a viable option to them, which is, of course, handy for the state because it appears, as if, these people volunteer themselves to be the expendables, even though that’s hardly the case.
There’s the view that the elderly shouldn’t be the ones taking the hit, because they are the ones most likely to be affected by this. In this view the younger population is seen as ready to take the hit, to bear the brunt, as their health is not likely to be affected by it, at least not any more than from any other common ailments that come and go. There are, of course, those who object to this view, those who, I do believe, correctly point out that there are cases where a young healthy person has suffered greatly from the effects of the virus and/or died as a result. Age is considered a major factor, as the numbers do seem to indicate that, but pre-existing conditions are also considered to be a major factor. The numbers do seem to indicate that. The thing is that when we are dealing with people who are considered to be healthy, having no pre-existing conditions, we don’t actually know if they have some pre-existing condition that simply hasn’t been diagnosed. In other words, it would seem to make sense to treat the younger parts of the population as the expendables. Their age and general lack of pre-existing conditions should protect them, so they don’t need protection. Of course, that may be detrimental to the social body in the long run. Then again, now is now, then is then, so, it makes sense to make them volunteer to take the hit, here and now.
I don’t think the main problem with objecting against the age factor has to do with the possible pre-existing conditions factor. That’s beside the point. Instead, I think the main problem is that this is about biopower. The individual simply does not matter. It’s all about the numbers, about what’s the best course of action for the population, which is not the same as the best for you, me or anybody in particular. If you happen to deviate from the norm, if that happens to make you expendable, well, too bad, it’s nothing personal!
To flip this on its head, once more, there’s also the view that the elderly are the expendables, by default. They typically need plenty of health care attention, namely because they are, in fact, old, which, in turn, makes it only likely that they’ve accrued all kinds of medical conditions. Simply, they are very maintenance heavy. On the top of that, they typically aren’t working anymore, so they aren’t adding anything to the system, nor do they have the income to pay for all those medical bills the same way others would. This means that the social body is expected to foot the bill. They are also on pensions, which are, to my knowledge, largely paid by the social body, that is to say taken from taxpayer money, so no matter how you look at it, just having them around results in deficit. They are similar to younger people who have medical conditions, with the exception that they are not expected to work, unlike the younger people who are expected to recover and rejoin the workforce, for that profit.
So, if the elderly are the ones to go, by all logic, how come they aren’t? Well, as much as I’ve tried to write this in a very cynical and calculative way, as if there were no actual people involved, you won’t find a social body that doesn’t consist of actual people who make actual decisions, chosen to do so by actual people. If you look at the numbers, to stay appropriately cynical again, you’ll notice that the elderly make up a significant part of the social body, at least in many western countries. It’s unlikely that they’ll vote for people who seek to go against their interests. Those who seek to make decisions on behalf of the social body must also be well aware of this voting bloc. To get to make decisions on behalf of the social body, you can’t run a campaign that would appear to be against their interests, nor make decisions that would be against their interests if you wish to keep your position, so that you can keep on making decisions on behalf of the social body in the future. Simply put, it’s in their best interests to cater to the interest of the elderly, which is why the elderly are not expendable.
The next in line to go are those who’ve been in the workforce for a considerable time already, but that’s not going to work because there are plenty of them as well, as the western populations tend to be top heavy. They’ve also likely accumulated plenty of wealth and/or hold positions which allow them to influence the decision making, one way or another. This means that they can simply hunker down, for the time being, even if it’s not ideal for them.
So, if not the elderly, nor the older members of the workforce, who then? Who gets to volunteer to take the hit? Well the youngest parts of the social body, of course. They are the ones who end up being the expendables. Firstly, those who do not have the right to vote, namely the children and the adolescent, end up being the expendables because they don’t get to have a say about what concerns them. As a side note, if you’ve ever wondered why things were the way they were when you were young, it’s probably because the social body was min-maxing you. It can do that because it’s not like those concerned get to have a say about what concerns them. Secondly, the youngest parts of the social body are generally the healthiest parts of the society. Their immune system is robust and they haven’t had the time to accrue all kinds of medical conditions, as already mentioned. So, because they are not affected by this virus, at least not in the sense that matters statistically, which is what matters when we are dealing biopower, they can take the hit. The hit they take doesn’t affect their health, at least not directly, but their future prospects, which affects their health indirectly, in a way that is, of course, very hard to measure or calculate.
The youngest parts of the social body include not only those who go to school or attend some college or university, but also the youngest part of the workforce. Some also study and work at the same time. If we focus on those who work, it doesn’t take an accountant to figure out that it’s best for the social body to deal with this part of the population because meddling with their lives is less costly than meddling with the lives of other parts of the population. It’s simply most cost-effective to fuck over the youngest parts of the social body. For example, the younger people tend to have low wage jobs, which means that if those jobs have to go, for now, the state doesn’t have to spend as much money on their unemployment as it would if it axed high wage jobs, typically held by older people. This might not be the case everywhere, but here, if you’ve been long enough in the workforce, the money you get while unemployed is tied to your prior level of income.
If we take into consideration how top heavy the population pyramid is, it should be pretty obvious that the social body will consider the youngest parts of the population as expendables, despite being the healthiest part of the social body and the most important part of it in the future. This is what people call borrowing from the future generations.
Now, of course, I’ve simplified things quite a bit, even though it’s probably fair to say that the youngest part of the population tend to be treated as the expendables, in general, and also in this particular situation. That said, socioeconomic factors should also be taken into consideration. Not every single elderly person is alike, nor is every young person alike, nor is every middle-aged person alike. You have poor people of all ages. It’s same with people who have social issues. This means that expendables then to be the ones who are, well, let’s be appropriately cynical about it, replaceable.
I think it’s also worth emphasizing that biopower is speculative. It doesn’t matter how things actually are or are going to be, because it’s about how they are thought to be, now and/or in the future. So, for example, contrary to what I just pointed about the younger parts of the population being expendable, which I think still holds, they are also the most likely to get hired whereas the older parts of the population tend to have tough time keeping their jobs and getting hired after losing their jobs. This has to do with how the older you are, the more likely it is that you have problems with your health. Now, of course, you might well be very healthy, much healthier than younger people, never missing work, always doing your best, now and in the future, but that’s not how that tends to get assessed because it’s not about the individual.
In summary, I wanted to write this essay because I don’t think things are as simple we keep getting told. That said, the point of this essay is not take sides, as there are no right or wrong way to manage things, only options among options, but rather to point out how the system works at the level of population. It’s always willing to sacrifice some people, for the greater good and there’s nothing personal about. There’s nothing exceptional about 2020 in that regard. That’s worth keeping in mind.
- Deleuze, G. ( 1988). Foucault (S. Hand, Trans.). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
- Foucault, M. ( 2003). “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France 1975–1976 (D. Macey, Trans.). New York, NY: Picador.