Concepts of biopower is how Foucault analyzes events. So is Foucalt just analyzing events or does he give opinions regarding biopower - for example, whether good establishment of biopower is good or biopower itself has bad consequence or so on?

  • It seems like this could possibly benefit from decomposition into several questions -- what is Foucault's theory of biopower; and what might the practical/policy implications of biopower be. – Joseph Weissman Feb 12 '13 at 3:18
  • Just in passing -- the secondary question about policy implications of biopower might be more closely aligned with the politics site – Joseph Weissman Feb 12 '13 at 3:22

Short answer:

Foucault avoids programmatic statements and rarely passes judgments. It would be safe to say that yes, indeed, Foucault simply offers a descriptive analysis without value judgments and "solutions". Foucault does not believe that the role of the intellectual is to tell others what to do. However, we may also add that by choosing to focus his research on madness, sexuality or biopolitics Foucault does show a certain bias: that these issues need attention, or, as Foucault usually puts it, that there is something "dangerous" about them.

Long answer:

What is biopower?

Biopower is the power over life itself. It will be helpful to contrast biopower with the sovereign power, as Foucault does himself on several occasions. Before the 18th century in the West, or so the argument goes, power operates primarily by "deduction" (HoS1, 136). The sovereign takes stuff away from his subjects: land, produce, and ultimately life. Sovereign power shows itself and asserts itself in these brief moments when a life is to be taken away (usually as a matter of public spectacle). The right of sovereignty is "the right to take life or let live" (SMD, 241 / HoS1, 136).

Biopower is the reversal of this relationship. It actively promotes life or lets die. Not that "bare life" has never been an issue before, but it was around the 18th century, argues Foucault, that it became an issue for politics:

For the first time in history, no doubt, biological existence was reflected in political existence; the fact of living was no longer an inaccessible substrate that only emerged from time to time, amid the randomness of death and its fatality; part of it passed into knowledge's field of control and power's sphere of intervention. Power would no longer be dealing simply with legal subjects over whom the ultimate dominion was death, but with living beings, and the mastery it would be able to exercise over them would have to be applied at the level of life itself; it was the taking charge of life, more than the threat of death, that gave power its access even to the body. (HoS1, 142-143)

Biopower operates on the level of populations. It is, in a sense, myopic in respect to particular individuals. The issues of concern for biopower are, for example, hygiene, health, birth and mortality rate. All of the above become objects of active manipulation:

The mechanisms introduced by biopolitics include forecasts, statistical estimates, and overall measures. And their purpose is not to modify any given phenomenon as such, or to modify a given individual insofar as he is an individual, but, essentially, to intervene at the level at which these general phenomena are determined, to intervene at the level of their generality. The mortality rate has to be modified or lowered; life expectancy has to be increased; the birth rate has to be stimulated. And most important of all, regulatory mechanisms must be established to establish an equilibrium, maintain an average, establish a sort of homeostasis, and compensate for variations within this general population and its aleatory field. In a word, security mechanisms have to be installed around the random element inherent in a population of living beings so as to optimize a state of life. Like disciplinary mechanisms, these mechanisms are designed to maximize and extract forces, but they work in very different ways. Unlike disciplines, they no longer train individuals by working at the level of the body itself. There is absolutely no question relating to an individual body, in the way that discipline does. It is therefore not a matter of taking the individual at the level of individuality but, on the contrary, of using overall mechanisms and acting in such a way as to achieve overall states of equilibration or regularity; it is, in a word, a matter of taking control of life and the biological processes of man-as-species and of ensuring that they are not disciplined, but regularized. (SMD, 245-6)

The focus of biopower is on increasing the productive forces of bodies (SMD, 242). If the population is healthy and plentiful, for example, it will work more and produce more. Capitalism and biopower, for Foucault, go hand in hand:

This bio-power was without question an indispensable element in the development of capitalism; the latter would not have been possible without the controlled insertion of bodies into the machinery of production and the adjustment of the phenomena of population to economic processes. ... The adjustment of the accumulation of men to that of capital, the joining of the growth of human groups to the expansion of productive forces and the differential allocation of profit, were made possible in part by the exercise of bio-power in its many forms and modes of application. The investment of the body, its valorization, and the distributive management of its forces were at the time indispensable. (HoS1, 140-141)

Some implications

Once again, Foucault's aim is to describe rather than prescribe. However, if we had to extrapolate some of the "dangerous" features of biopower from the discussion above they could be that biopower

  • is blind to personal circumstances and personal misery
  • prefers quantity to quality (is it, for example, "good" to simply live a long life or are we interested in how it is lived?)
  • is to some extent coterminous with capitalism and that's a can of worms on its own

One example. As it was mentioned above, biopower is exercised across populations (regularization of birth rates, longevity etc.) and is myopic to particular individuals. It promotes life or lets die. An interesting example of the problematic nature of this approach is the "left-to-die boat" case. In 2011 sixty three Lybian migrants died after drifting for fourteen days in an area heavily monitored by NATO. They were noticed, of course, but all kinds of complex maritime jurisdiction trickery was used to avoid responsibility for rescuing the Lybians. Abstaining from rescue can be as potent a killing as targeted murder. Governing migration, and especially when it comes to refugees, is the prime and telling example of biopolitics in action.


HoS1: Foucault, M. (1978). The History of sexuality: An Introduction. New York: Pantheon Books.

SMD: Foucault, M. (2003). Society Must be Defended. (M. Bertani, A. Fontana, F. Ewald, A. I. Davidson, Eds., & D. Macey, Trans.) New York: Picador.

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