TOWARDS A RENEWED FOOTING
This pretty much qualifies as an academic paper. If that’s not your thing, I understand. We’ll catch you next time. However, I do think there’s real value in reading this. I wouldn’t be posting it here otherwise. It was originally written as the maiden, foundational essay for a journal on biopolitics that a friend and I were once working toward launching. For several reasons that project was shelved. Still, I think the notion expressed here of how to rethink the idea of biopolitics — in light of its diverging traditions of thought — remains a worthy endeavour. I want to use the concept in future analyses of the substack, but the idea does need to be clarified. While, unlike the previously imagined journal, the point of this substack’s use of biopolitics is not to reconceptualize it upon a new, more rigorous and reflexive footing, such a renewed footing has its value for the exploration and application of biopolitics I’ll be undertaking here. So, if that’s convinced you to read on, welcome, and let’s get started.
Biopolitics is a neologism dating back about a century at this point. The term was used in the 1920s by Swedish political scientist Rudolf Kjellen, University of Uppsala, (also credited with coining the term “geopolitics”) who used “biopolitics” to cast an organicist view of the state, in which the latter was conceived as a “life form” that preceded the individual. For the next several decades the term had a checkered career, including being used in 1934 by Hans Reiter, the head of the Reich Health Department. Reiter too used the term with an organicist flavour, describing the Nazi’s biologically based conception of the relationship between the German people and state, with an eye to increasing the German population and improving its genetics. The term has been used at different times to also refer to a politics aimed at improving biological conditions of life, with ecological and technological concerns.1
Only though over the last half of the century since Kjellen’s linguistic innovation – from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s – has biopolitics picked up steam as a marker of the intellectual foci addressed in this new magazine. Interestingly though, the term gained this popularity simultaneously in divergent directions. Some have claimed these are entirely incommensurable directions.2 That more robust claim will be disputed here. But there’s no argument that each of these directions conceived their focus very differently. In fact, even within the intellectual stream flowing in each direction there have been noteworthy differences. Unearthing all such nuance though would be getting too deeply into the weeds for purposes here. For the most part these will be dealt with as two broad umbrella conceptions of the term. Though, toward the end, it will be necessary to highlight an important distinction within one of those streams.
These two directions can be broadly distinguished with the adjectives of scientific and poststructuralist.3 Central to appreciating the relevance of those distinguishing adjectives is to appreciate the very different role played in each by the prefix in biopolitics. For scientific biopolitics, the bio signifies a set of disciplines which are to be synthesized with the study of politics. For poststructuralist biopolitics, the bio refers to the object of action by the political practices under investigation.4 Though it may not be obvious from the preceding description, the differences here are not merely etymological, but more profoundly epistemological. The resolution of this conflict, in the present paper, will no doubt be entirely unsatisfactory to those who put much stock in such disputes. Hopefully it will become clear enough that there’s much more value for a renewed footing of biopolitics by soft peddling such epistemological differences than there is in fretting and wallowing over them.
Clearing up any ambiguity arising from these descriptions requires now turning to a detailed anatomy of each of these biopolitics streams. Further, once they have each been elaborated, it will be possible to deliver the real payoff of the analysis: an unveiling of how a synergy between these two streams provides the necessary ground for relaunching biopolitics on a new, more rigorous and prudent intellectual footing.
Scientific biopolitics is the intellectual stream in which has been advocated the marriage, melding or minimally the mutually informing engagement between political science and various disciplines that have developed to explain some aspect of human biology. Exhortations in this direction have come from both sides of the aisle in this proposed union. Influential evolutionary biologists, for instance, have pointed to the fruitfulness of evolutionary biology in explaining human political life since the 1970s.5 However, while in some political science circles this attitude may have been regarded as a kind of disciplinary colonialism and reductionism, there also has been a concerted initiative to bring about such a marriage from the political science side of the aisle. In 1979, Wiegele published his Biopolitics: Search for a more human political science.6 In 1981, the Association for Politics and the Life Sciences was established, along with publication of the first issue of its peer-reviewed semi-annual journal, Politics and Life Sciences, the following year.
While early work in biopolitics tended to offer a life sciences approach as the necessary new paradigm for rethinking political science7, more progress in the synthesis began to be made once research turned to more narrowly specific problems and findings.8 Notable in this kind of work was the research by Alford et al, from 2005, on the genetic heritability of political ideology. Operating from a behavioral genetics frame, they used twin studies to upset the established socialization assumption of mainstream political science, illustrating that individual political ideology was significantly impacted by genetics.9 Along similar lines, it proved possible to identify two specific genetic polymorphisms that seem to regulate voter turnout.10
Genetics and behavioral genetics though have not been the only life science fields feeding into biopolitics. Evolutionary biology in general, and evolutionary psychology in particular, most notably through the Santa Barbara School, have contributed to this marriage with political science. This approach has emphasized how specific adaptations influence political outlooks. In humans, particularly males, upper body strength is associated with greater expectations of achieving self-interest and willingness to advocate war as a means to such achievement.11 Indeed, in-group promotion of increasing muscularity is evident among those who desire the dominance of their group or coalition.12 Coalition building, maintenance and strength signaling has been another area explored in evolutionary psychology. As Michael Bang Petersen reviews in his comprehensive treatment of evolutionary political psychology, humans have a wide range of pro-coalition adaptations, including for selecting appropriate coalitions, managing conflict and cheaters in coalitions, monitoring the appropriate conduct of leaders, and signaling membership in – and the related strength of – coalitions.13
The Santa Barbara School though has not been the only important school of evolutionary psychology and biology contributing to biopolitics. Another school, loosely associated with the University of Arizona, has leveraged the insights of life-history theory, multilevel selection and epigenetics to tease out implications for human political experience. Manifest as explorations of biohistory and biogeography, these approaches are self-evidently, and sometimes self-consciously, cast as dimensions of biopolitics. Among the areas this circle of scholars has explored have been the underpinning evolutionary and epigenetic explanations for the rise and fall of political entities such as nations, empires, and civilizations.14 Though not directly connected to this school, kindred approaches can be observed in the work of scholars such as Peter Turchin.15 In addition to genetics and evolutionary psychology, particularly with the emergence of MRI scanning technology, neuroscience has also been influential in the grounding of biopolitics.16
More controversial has been biopolitics research into the areas of intelligence and human biodiversity. Such controversy seems to accelerate exponentially when these two concerns are combined.17 While Biopolitics Magazine acknowledges how sensitive such research can be, the importance of that work for contextualizing ideological claims and providing a fuller picture of social and historical reality requires that such work be encouraged and fostered, though of course with care to empirical detail and sound analysis of results. Though this of course is always required in biopolitics research.
What has been less controversial in the field, but we at Biopolitics Magazine believe should be the more controversial dimension of scientific biopolitics, has been the emphasis on bio-policy. In some cases, the discussion of bio-policy might be regarded as an extension of bioethics. For example, discussions of de-extinction of species, geoengineering and potential for Crispr gene editing technology all fall under this umbrella.18 The more troubling area of such focus though regards how scientific knowledge about human nature can be used to manipulate human individuals and indeed whole human populations. For example, the deep understanding of the cognitive and motivational operation of the human brain through fMRI informed neuroscience opens a panoply of complex questions about how such knowledge might be used and abused. In Robert Bank’s thorough discussion of these issues, he raises the potential necessity for government regulation of the use of such knowledge by private actors. A strange lacuna in his analysis though is the need for equal attention to the potential for so called public actors, through the state, to use their regulatory and police powers to operationalize such knowledge against their own citizens.19 As will be expanded upon below, the need for vigilance in this regard has been all too poignantly emphasized during the COVID pandemic, which has seen governments around the world, through their various “nudge” departments and bureaus, instrumentalize, and indeed weaponize, knowledge of human behavioral psychology to generate sustained social atmospheres of fear, anxiety and shame to manipulate public action and attitudes.20
While both biologists and political scientists were advocating for a scientific biopolitics, in the 1970s and 80s, an entirely different conception of biopolitics was taking shape – most notably in the work of Michel Foucault and his disciples. Foucault blazed the trail in this regard with the first volume of his book on The History of Sexuality and his College de France lectures in the late 70s.21 In this poststructuralist approach, the bio in biopolitics pointed to – not the partner in a marriage proposal, but – the object of action for an emergent new form of politics. Poststructuralist biopolitics took shape in response to the observed emergence of a new version of governance, which was directed at the administration of the public as life. For Foucault in particular, biopolitics occasioned a shift in the legitimization of governance, from a prior model of sovereignty. This constitutes a shift in emphasis from rights to norms. In Lemke’s words: “The absolute right of the sovereign tends to be replaced by a logic of calculating, measuring and comparing.”22 This shift is eloquently captured in a passage from the first volume of Foucault’s History of Sexuality:
It is no longer a matter of bringing death into play in the field of sovereignty, but of distributing the living in the domain of value and utility. Such a power has to qualify, measure, appraise, and hierarchize, rather than display itself in its murderous splendor; it does not have to draw the line that separates the enemy of the sovereign from his loyal subjects. It effects distribution around the norm.23
This process though should not be misunderstood as a displacement of sovereign right over death, but rather, in Lemke’s words, “the power over death is freed from all existing boundaries, since it is supposed to serve the interest of life.”24 What Max Weber called the state’s monopoly on violence, under poststructuralist biopolitics, simultaneously, completely colonizes the life of the citizen as a datum of the population, while being raised to ultimate moral legitimacy as the defender of life. This legitimacy, backed by often at best quasi-legal police actions, has been evident in the remarkably widely accepted imposition of official two-tier classes of citizens in the form of vaccine passports within self-described liberal democracies within which such official second-class citizenship would have been considered inconceivable by most people prior to the COVID pandemic. A team of German authors’ efforts to explicitly apply poststructuralist biopolitics to the COVID response internationally is worth quoting at length:
most state responses to the SARS-CoV-2 virus have been justified in biopolitical terms by a “re-biologization” of the population, and a perceived overarching imperative to keep as many people alive as possible. Some of the most prominent means used to pursue this general end have been the familiar tools of state sovereignty: orders and decrees forbidding certain activity, requiring others, and the passing (or suspending) of laws in order to ensure that these measures are legally and constitutionally legitimate or adequately funded. Police, national guards and in some cases even the military (and paramilitary units) have been called upon to enforce restrictions. These sovereign tolls are being deployed in a broadly biopolitical sense, that is, making (rather than letting) live.25 (Sources removed for citation.)
They go on to characterize the COVID response as being typically biopolitical with its focus on the rule of epidemiologists, virologists and other experts, all typical of what they cite Roberto Esposito as describing as biopolitics’ “medicalization of politics.” The union of the cult of expertise with the sovereign power of right is the hallmark of contemporary biopolitics at work, and nowhere has this been more evident than in the medicalization of politics under COVID.
Over the last couple centuries, a host of knowledge generating disciplines emerged as the loci of this triumphant biopolitics, from demography to hygienics to psychology, that informed this administration of people as forms of animal life. This recognition constituted a deepening appreciation of Foucault’s well-rehearsed dictum that knowledge was power. According to Hacking, across Europe, the United Kingdom and North America, from 1820 to 1840 especially, there was an “avalanche of numbers” generated through demographic data collection, record keeping and analysis, which established the statistical instruments for administration of the public’s animal life.26 Everything from sexuality to nutrition, from disease mitigation to birth and mortality rates, became foci of leverage for managing and regulating the lives of the population. In language more colloquial than the argot of poststructuralism, this is the world of health and medical experts who set up norms of rational and moral conduct, within the home, at the workplace and in the public sphere. Jacques Donzelot, for example, in his book The Policing of Families, reveals how philanthropy, social work, compulsory mass education, and psychiatry combined to exercise such biopolitics over family life, and in the process, in Donzelot’s estimation, transformed mothers into agents of the state.27
Failure to conform to biopolitical norms is at best indicative of an abdication of legal competence and at worst an expression of anti-social behaviour requiring redress for its bald threat to the common good. Again, we’ve all recently experienced such biopolitics amid the public health and mass media orchestrated regime of existential fear deliberately cultivated by practitioners of behavioural psychology as a strategy of popular discipline and behaviour modification in response to COVID.28 The governance of the pandemic has been a sterling case study in how knowledge operates as power under the specific conditions of this triumphant biopolitics. The strength of the poststructuralist insight into these developments is rooted in its rejection of any scientific discourse as inherently possessing default legitimacy.29 This attitude sharply contrasts with that cacophony of voices echoing knee-jerk support of the biopolitics regime with ritualized calls to “follow the science.” However, upon closer examination, poststructuralist biopolitics’ strength of insight ironically also turns out to be its lacuna of weakness. Once though that lacuna in poststructuralist biopolitics is addressed, the suggestion that the two streams of biopolitics are incommensurable is revealed as misguided. Further, a valuable interplay, maybe we might even say synergy, between the two biopolitics streams can be identified.
A Biopolitics Synergy?
A potential strength in poststructuralist biopolitics, that inoculates it against the kind of instrumentalization observed as possible with scientific biopolitics and its flirtation with bio-policy, is its radical historicism. It refuses to accept any power position as being transhistorical, but rather deconstructs all such positions into their historically and socially constructing context. (Or, at least, ostensibly so; one is justified in questioning whether poststructuralism always adequately acknowledges the power position of its own knowledge production. But let’s leave this point aside for the moment.) However, this radical relativism, this social/historical constructionism, poststructuralism’s antidote to insidious knowledge colonization, as biopower, is likewise the Achilles heel of poststructuralist biopolitics. It’s determined refusal to be duped by such knowledge-power nexuses has left it vulnerable to the exploitation of self-indulgent fantasists. The contemporary trans movement, with its insistence upon gender and sexuality as determined by the subjective fantasy of the individual is only the most glaring example of this shortcoming in poststructuralism’s final resort to a reality begging idealism. The cause of a realistic poststructuralism (if such a thing isn’t an oxymoron) has not been helped by idealist relativists who have infiltrated the biological sciences, to offer cherry picked and confused arguments, making the erroneous claim that sex is exclusively determined by karyotype, aggravated by the exaggeration of outlier cases as though they constituted clinical norms.30 The contemporary power of the trans activists to “cancel” and even effectively de-person those who provide such biologically-grounded critiques, or who challenge the aggressively pro-transition agenda (even among children) – prevalent in the therapy, medical and legal discourses – elegantly illustrates just how poststructuralist biopolitics can be colonized as positions of biopower.
The costs of this idealist relativism, though, are not restricted to the damage done to the prospects for a realistic poststructuralist biopolitics by activists and infiltrators; it extends to a lacuna at the very heart of the project of poststructuralist biopolitics. Poststructuralism’s history involved a critique of Marxist materialism, and so poststructuralist biopolitics has not been well positioned theoretically to recognize the complementarity between its analyses and those of the neo- or quasi-Marxist analyses of the new, managerial class.31 A more materialist-grounded epistemology would have helped the theorists of poststructuralist biopolitics to better situate their insights into a practical, tangible understanding of how their valuable analyses manifest in a more specific expression of real-world power relations. The poststructuralists are correct that it is a mistake to reduce power to mere dominance; power, as the network of social and technological forces, is indeed generative. That observation though hardly relieves such analysis from the need to root the critique of the administration and regulation of human animal life in the specific conditions that have given rise to this form of poststructuralist biopolitics.
So, poststructuralist biopolitics quite rightly point to the contingency of discourses of power – historical ideas of health, morality, reason and even power have been conceived quite differently. And, yes, these conceptions have been informed by the power or dominance of specific group interests. At best, though, all that poststructuralism can provide is a cataloguing of these differences, with a nod to their function. And at worst, poststructuralist biopolitics serves as cover for idealist relativists who’d exploit the tradition to maneuver into a new, more insidious, reality denying, form of biopolitics – unsurprisingly, increasingly inclined to be backed by the monopoly of violence of the sovereign right of the state.32 It is here that – in the same way that poststructuralist biopolitics can provide a remedy to the excesses of scientific biopolitics – scientific biopolitics can provide a remedy to the excesses of poststructuralist biopolitics.
In the same way that scientific biopolitics benefits from poststructuralist biopolitics’ insights into the dangers of the scientific discourse lapsing into a rationalization for the technocratic rule of the experts, the predictable expression of the hegemony of the managerial class; so, poststructuralist biopolitics benefits from a scientific biopolitics that insists upon checking the validity of reality claims against the empirical data of the material world. This contribution both allows poststructuralist biopolitics to be more than a mere description of practices and discourse, while simultaneously protecting it against becoming the legitimizing dupe in the very kind of biopolitical sovereign dominance agendas which it set out to warn us against.
Perhaps particularly of importance here would be what might be called a sub-variety of scientific biopolitics: evolutionary biopolitics. It is only with evolutionary biopolitics that our analyses can get beyond the proximate explanations of poststructuralist biopolitics to the ultimate explanations rooted in the objective, material motive forces of life. Such an evolutionary biopolitics is required to understand both why a particular power discourse phenotype exists, as well as the mechanism that explains why such contingent differences are inevitable in the face of different genomes and different environmental stimuli. Poststructuralist biopolitics can come unhinged when power is fetishized as a reified ideal. At that point its explanatory benefits become compromised beyond utility. This insight was expressed succinctly by Michelle Sugiyama, in her examination of the role of evolutionary forces operating amid the narrative practices of anthropological people.
Where my approach and postmodernist theory agree is on the fundamentally interested nature of narrative. Postmodernism takes as a given that, consciously or unconsciously, storytellers have ulterior motives. However, its assumption that self-interest varies (e.g., due to sex, race, social status) is not an explanation but rather a phenomenon to be explained. Why and in what way, for example, should we expect the interests of women narrators to differ from those of male narrators? In order to answer these and other questions related to narrative function, we must first understand the selection pressures to which the mind was subject and the means it evolved to solve them.33 (Emphasis added.)
It is scientific biopolitics generally, and evolutionary biopolitics particularly, that offers the remedy to this conceptual limitation built into the logic of poststructuralism, just as poststructuralist biopolitics provides a bulwark against the slide into technocracy and managerial class social engineering through the advocacy of bio-policy. Perhaps then an apropos note upon which to end these reflections would be in citing a couple of proponents of poststructuralist biopolitics, Vanessa Lemm and Miguel Vatter, from an article of theirs published in a collection edited by two of the pioneers of scientific biopolitics, Steven Peterson and Albert Somit. Their essay, “Michel Foucault’s perspective on biopolitics,” concludes with these last thoughts on the role of resistance to biopolitics as imagined by Foucault:
Foucault hypothesizes that human rights, understood from within the horizon of biopolitics, are no longer based on the right to be free or the right to be equal (as civil and political rights are conceived within a society still ruled by sovereign power of the state), but they should be based on what he calls a right to be different, which is probably best understood as a basic right not to be treated as a statistic, as a specimen of a population that is placed under control, observation and regulation by any of the policy sciences currently adopted by governments.34
This is a valuable touchstone to guide us at Biopolitics Magazine in our exploration of how the evolutionary and biological sciences can help better explain the contemporary phenomenon of political life. Any responsibility we have, to leverage such insight, cannot be allowed to lose track of the dangers our efforts may pose to others, when such insights are instrumentalized by the administrative state and the corporate conglomerates who would reduce us all to the managed data of the apparatus of their social engineering. Knowledge may inevitably entail power. If so, knowledge producers have a responsibility to remain vigilant against the propensity for such power to be converted into dominance by their own class. At the same time, though, we also have a responsibility to pursue truth, however contingent that truth must, by definition, always be. And pursuing truth requires rooting our work in our best ability to test truth claims against the obstinate facts of the empirical world.
Scientific and poststructuralist biopolitics may both have their unique Achilles heel. However, working together, they may help each other to stand strong, and so, moving forward, together may provide a renewed footing for a more rigorous and more prudent biopolitics. This is the intellectual and political space that Biopolitics Magazine aspires to inhabit.
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Liesen and Walsh, “The Competing Meanings of ‘Biopolitics’ in Political Science.”
The term “postmodernist” could have been used here, but poststructuralist is more precise, with its philosophical claim that the world lacks any kind of inherent structure upon which knowledge can be grounded.
Liesen and Walsh, “The Competing Meanings of ‘Biopolitics’ in Political Science.”
Alexander, Darwinism and Human Affairs; Alexander, The Biology of Moral Systems; Wilson, Consilience; Cosmides and Tooby, “Evolutionary Psychology, Moral Heuristics, and the Law.”
Wiegele; Masters, The Nature of Politics.
Blank and Petersen, “Success or Failure?”
Alford, Funk, and Hibbing, “Are Political Orientations Genetically Transmitted?”
Fowler and Dawes, “Two Genes Predict Voter Turnout.”
Sell, Tooby, and Cosmides, “Formidability and the Logic of Human Anger”; Sell et al., “Physically Strong Men Are More Militant”; Price et al., “Muscularity and Attractiveness as Predictors of Human Egalitarianism”; Petersen et al., “The Ancestral Logic of Politics”; Petersen, “Evolutionary Political Psychology.”
Swami et al., “Social Dominance Orientation Predicts Drive for Muscularity among British Men.”
Petersen, “Evolutionary Political Psychology.”
Hertler et al., Life History Evolution; Sarraf, Menie, and Feltham, Modernity and Cultural Decline; Hertler, Figueredo, and Peñaherrera-Aguirre, Multilevel Selection.
Turchin, War and Peace and War; Turchin, Ages of Discord; Turchin, Historical Dynamics.
Blank, “The Brain and Public Policy”; Friend and Thayer, “Success or Failure?”
Rushton, Race, Evolution & Behavior; Lynn, Race Differences in Intelligence; Lynn and Becker, The Intelligence of Nations.
Fletcher, “Engineering the Future: New Frontiers for Biopolitics.”
Blank, “The Brain and Public Policy.”
Dodsworth, A State of Fear.
Foucault, The History of Sexuality; Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the College de France, 1978-79.
Foucault, The History of Sexuality.
Hannah, Hutta, and Schemann, “Thinking Through Covid-19 Responses with Foucault – An Initial Overview.”
Hacking, Logic of Statistical Inference.
Donzelot, The Policing of Families.
Hannah, Hutta, and Schemann, “Thinking Through Covid-19 Responses with Foucault – An Initial Overview”; Dodsworth, A State of Fear.
Contrary to what many advocates (and even many critics) of poststructuralism (or postmodernism) seem to appreciate, the claim that absolute, definitive truth is beyond the reach of human knowledge is not in the least incompatible with, or an epistemological death blow against science. As the greatest 20th century philosopher of science, widely credited with formally systemizing the scientific method, Karl Popper, put it: all scientific truth is contingent. No matter how convinced we are of a scientific proposition, it is only as true as it stands up to incoming evidence. Any time we relax our vigilance and comfortably assume, as some like to say, that “the science is settled,” we have abandoned science and allowed ourselves to drift into religion, or ideology, or some other discourse that resorts to belief in definitive, final truth. So, poststructuralism does indeed have more in common with science than advocates and critics alike generally acknowledge or perhaps even appreciate. Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery; Popper, Conjectures and Refutations.
McConkey, “Why We Should Stop Using the Term ‘Gender.’”
Burnham, The Managerial Revolution; Gouldner, The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class; McConkey, The Managerial Class on Trial.
There have been escalating moves to discipline what are characterized as “anti-trans” assertions of objective biology, described as “misgendering,” through professional associations and extra-judicial “human rights” commissions. In the final analysis, the power of such government regulated organizations is of course ultimately backed by the coercive force of the state: e.g., McNamarah, “Misgendering as Misconduct”; “Surrey Police Investigation over ‘misgendering’ Tweets”; Pardy, “Law Society’s New Policy Compels Speech, Crossing Line That Must Not Be Crossed”; Pardy, “Meet the New ‘human Rights’ — Where You Are Forced by Law to Use ‘Reasonable’ Pronouns”; Volokh, “Opinion | You Can Be Fined for Not Calling People ‘Ze’ or ‘Hir,’ If That’s the Pronoun They Demand That You Use”; Manning, “Man Lost Childline Role for Raising Fears of Rushed Sex Changes.”
Sugiyama, “Narrative Theory and Function.”
Lemm and Vatter, “Michel Foucault’s Perspective on Biopolitics.”