Social Justice Usage
Source: Foucault, Michel. History of Sexuality, Vol I. pp. 140–141.
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. But this was not all it required; it also needed the growth of both these factors, their reinforcement as well as their availability and docility; it had to have methods of power capable of optimizing forces, aptitudes, and life in general without at the same time making them more difficult to govern. If the development of the great instruments of the state, as institutions of power, ensured the maintenance of production relations, the rudiments of anatomo- and bio-politics, created in the eighteenth century as techniques of power present at every level of the social body and utilized by very diverse institutions (the family and the army, schools and the police, individual medicine and the administration of collective bodies), operated in the sphere of economic processes, their development, and the forces working to sustain them. They also acted as factors of segregation and social hierarchization, exerting their influence on the respective forces of both these movements, guaranteeing relations of domination and effects of hegemony. 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.
New Discourses Commentary
“Biopower” is a neologism of the postmodernist philosopher Michel Foucault used to describe the situation when truth claims, especially as determined by experts and science, become the prevailing form of systemic power (more accurately, power-knowledge) governing the organization of society. As Foucault had it, biopower is a practice in modern states used to organize society and control the people within it by means of “an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations” (History of Sexuality, Vol. 1). Foucault saw biopower as a means of controlling, organizing, or otherwise governing large groups of people by placing limitations and controls on their bodies (hence the “bio” in biopower) through leading them to believe certain ways to think and act are consistent with the truth.
Foucault explained the idea this way in Security, Territory, and Population:
By this I mean a number of phenomena that seem to me to be quite significant, namely, 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 18th century, modern Western societies took on board the fundamental biological fact that human beings are a species. This is what I have called biopower.
Put more simply, biopower is the state of affairs when we rely upon expert and scientific knowledge and scientific discourses to organize society and to manage people—notably through appeals to biology and especially the medical sciences, hence the term. It is, in some sense, the mechanism of power within technocracy. Foucault saw biopower as the relevant power structure of the current truth regime (or “episteme”), having replaced monarchical, ecclesiastical, and punitive approaches of earlier eras, and the relevance of medical discourses on madness and (homo)sexuality are clearly at the heart of his thoughts on the matter, given his other work. At the heart of the idea of biopower is the perspective that scientific and medical discourses are used by people to understand themselves and one another such that they might be more optimally suited for life and productivity in the prevailing market economy (as the logic of advanced capitalism and neoliberalism would demand this be the primary motivation, as Foucault would have it).
Foucault was, surprisingly, mostly positive about the development of biopower, which he laid out in considerable detail in his lecture series in 1978, rather near the end of his life, at least in comparing it to earlier forms of the assertion of power to organize society. This led his critics to his left to claim that Foucault was more of a neoliberal thinker, who supported the general logic of free markets in capitalist society, than is probably representative of his actual thought, though this seems to have matured and softened from his earlier radicalism as he aged, making it difficult to tell. (Foucault was famous, however, for having remarked that the Enlightenment led to the development of capitalism, which is the most oppressive system that society has ever developed.) Even so, he did hold out some reservations about the potential for over-reliance upon scientific knowledge, particularly the ways that technological developments enabled horrific genocides under Hitler’s Nazi regime and Stalin’s approach to Sovietism. These, he contended, depended upon biopower to have been possible.
Of course, Foucault was quite suspicious of power and, particularly, of its relationship with knowledge, and this suspicion extended also to biopower as a matter of general principle. This radical skepticism meshes with the famous Foucauldian idea that it isn’t that everything is bad but that everything is dangerous. Who is able to be legitimized to adjudicate a claim on truth was, to Foucault, intrinsically a political project in constant need of interrogation—thus a cynical skepticism of all knowledge as an application of (corrupt) politics is at the heart of Foucault’s analysis. Nevertheless, it would be a misreading of his perspective on biopower to believe that he was strictly critical of the phenomenon and that he did not see it as a mostly positive development in the long history of social control (see Discipline and Punish).
As a derivative—or, more accurately, an evolution—of postmodernist thought, however, the Theory of Critical Social Justice is not at all positive to the notion of biopower, where it forms a significant part of the functional backbone of queer Theory (thus gender studies), and from there fat studies and disability studies (see also, crip Theory) and touches somewhat significantly on certain developments within critical race Theory, especially where it intersects with the history of racial issues in medical research and care and biological (or scientific) racism, which remains very hot-button (see also, health equity and medicalizing).
Within the far more cynical Theory of Critical Social Justice, biopower is nearly always viewed as an abuse of power that arises from a hegemonic monopoly of knowledge-production by “dominant” systemic forces in society and the identity groups that these dynamics are associated with (see also, ways of knowing, epistemic oppression, and epistemic violence). In queer Theory, cisnormativity and heteronormativity (including its “enforcers,” transphobia and homophobia) are believed to be upheld by biopower rooted in biological notions of sex and its relationship to gender, as well as sexuality (see also, biological essentialism, sex essentialism, and blank slatism). In gender studies, women’s studies, and some branches of feminism, it is the idea of patriarchy, misogyny, and sexism being maintained by beliefs that there are biological differences with physical, cognitive, and psychological relevance between men and women (along with similar points about gender minorities as raised by queer Theory, in the present imperfect taxonomy). In disability studies, ablenormativity (and its enforcers, ableism and disableism) is treated likewise. In fat studies, it is thin normativity and healthism (which are upheld by fatphobia, fat shaming, and fat stigma, and then medicalizing narratives and even nutritionism, respectively). In critical race Theory, it is the idea that any objective differences between the races could be used to justify racism or “naturalize” inequitable racial outcomes (e.g., if there exists an underlying physical or biological cause that Covid-19 disproportionately impacts black people, that could be used to claim that systemic racism isn’t the primary, if not sole, cause of racially disparate outcomes with respect to the relevant virus—see also, health equity and climate justice).
By cherry-picking the most paranoid interpretations of the concept of biopower (see also, genocide), Critical Social Justice is able to take its fundamentally anti-scientific enterprise to an incredible height. Under such an approach, if any scientific finding contradicts Critical Social Justice Theory’s claims about any of its protected identity groups, it can (mis)use the concept of biopower to assert that the science itself should be considered invalid and harmful. This follows because that information makes problematic use of scientific truth claims that exclude and marginalize other ways of knowing, like lived experience (of systemic oppression), while inducing compliance in a believing public. It is in this regard that many of the arguments are made that science itself is oppressive, transphobic, heteronormative, fatphobic, ablenornative and disablist, racist, white supremacist, patriarchal and masculinist (if not misogynist), exclusionary, neoliberal, and violent (see also, epistemic violence), and makes use of oppressive narratives and discourses that medicalize, such as healthism and nutritionism—and thus must be regarded with skepticism on the grounds that it causes significant harms while laying a completely illegitimate claim to objectivity that cannot be had (see also, cultural relativism and positivism). That is, science is bad in all ways that don’t support Critical Social Justice.
Furthermore, because Foucault identified rightly that organizing society in terms of scientific truths is very useful for enforcing “control” over citizens within a market economy (despite that this is a vastly better form of social control than the caprice of emperors, kings, and bishops), the more strongly socialist elements within Critical Theoretical thought (including that of Critical Social Justice) often make the case that the root motivation for problematic assumptions like ableism (that it is generally better to be able-bodied than not), for example, is to serve capitalist interests rather than individual interests. Thus, following Foucault’s observations on biopower, we frequently encounter arguments like that the desire to improve disabled accessibility, reduce obesity, understand any biologically relevant features of race, sex, sexuality, gender, and all the rest, is in fact an attempt to extract more neoliberal value out of people (and the identity groups to which they belong) in the context of capitalism. That is, they accuse people more specifically of wanting to improve access or enablement of disabled people, for example, only to make them more useful in a capitalist context wherein their value can be extracted by and for capitalist interests (see also, interest convergence). This is a profoundly cynical view.
Whether Foucault’s intention or not (and we have good reasons to believe it was not), biopower has been taken as the basis of an extreme anti-intellectual tendency in Critical Social Justice, up to and including believing (following Foucault’s own concerns) that advances in medicine and weight control can be considered tantamount to genocides of certain oppressed identity groups. This is a very paranoid view. Thus, we can conclude that, whatever Foucault’s intentions with the concept, the notion of biopower in Critical Social Justice Theory is profoundly cynical and paranoid and is used primarily to justify its own detachment from reality, which will, of course, eventually backfire tragically.
Ableism; Ablenormativity; Biological essentialism; Blank slatism; Bodies; Capitalism; Cisnormativity; Climate justice; Crip Theory; Critical; Critical race Theory; Critical Theory; Cultural relativism; Disableism; Disability studies; Discourse; Dominant; Enlightenment; Episteme; Epistemic oppression; Epistemic violence; Equity; Exclusion; Fat shaming; Fat stigma; Fat studies; Fatphobia; Feminism; Foucauldian; Gender; Gender studies; Genocide; Harm; Health equity; Healthism; Hegemony; Heteronormativity; Homophobia; Interest convergence; Interrogate; Knowledge(s); Legitimate; Lived experience; Man; Marginalization; Masculinism; Medicalizing; Misogyny; Narrative; Nazi; Neoliberal; Nutritionism; Objectivity; Oppression; Patriarchy; Positivism; Postmodernism; Power (systemic); Power-knowledge; Problematic; Queer Theory; Racism (systemic); Radical; Science; Sex; Sex essentialism; Sexism (systemic); Sexuality; Social Justice; Socialism; System, the; Theory; Thin normativity; Transphobia; Truth; Truth regime; Violence; Ways of knowing; White supremacy; Woman; Women’s studies
Revision date: 11/4/20