The Normativity of Biopolitics - Daniele Lorenzini
Working draft of a talk delivered at the Dutch-Belgian Foucault Circle on 24 February 2021.
As was predictable, the coronavirus pandemic has contributed to the emergence of a new series of analyses centered on Michel Foucault’s notions of biopower or biopolitics. In this talk, I won’t draw any distinctions between the two notions (because Foucault himself doesn’t), and just use them interchangeably to indicate the specific form and mechanisms of power that aim to protect, manage, and enhance the biological life of the population. However, the re-appropriation of the notions of biopower and biopolitics by politicians, journalists, and public intellectuals today also gave rise to many—more or less problematic—misunderstandings and misreadings of Foucault. If anything, I hope that my talk will shed some light on what these uses of Foucault’s notions of biopower and biopolitics misunderstand and overlook. At the same time, however, I wouldn’t want to limit myself to the bleak task of “defending” Foucault. That’s definitely not the point. Offering a reading of Foucault’s work on biopolitics that is as close as possible to his original aims and intentions should indeed be just the premise for a further, and more relevant, task: ask whether or not his analyses are still relevant to us, and explore ways in which they can be modified in order to address problems that are certainly different from those that Foucault was addressing more than forty years ago.
In March 2020, I wrote a short piece for Critical Inquiry to respond to a first series of contributions (by Agamben, Esposito, Nancy, etc.) that relied on Foucault’s concept of biopolitics to address the current Covid-19 pandemic. I was particularly struck by the lack of discussion, in those contributions, of some of what I consider to be the most interesting and relevant insights of Foucault’s work on biopolitics. Much of the attention in those contributions was devoted to disciplinary measures such as quarantine and lockdown, to increased surveillance, and to the ensuing risk of fascist or totalitarian drifts of our democratic-neoliberal States (no surprise Agamben’s analyses in particular focused on the Schmittian notion of the “state of exception” and on what is now referred to as “dictature sanitaire,” sanitary dictatorship). But Foucault’s work on biopolitics is more complex, rich, and compelling for us today than it appears to be under the pen of those who too quickly reduce it to a series of anathemas against disciplinary confinement and mass surveillance, or just use it to talk about the state of exception and bare life. Agamben’s famous thesis, as is well known, is that the decisive event of modern politics is not the inclusion of zoē (biological life) into politics, but the fact that in modern times the exception has become the rule and the realm of bare life has therefore been made to coincide with the political realm tout court. Thus, bios (the kind of qualified, social-political-cultural life) and zoē have entered into a zone of irreducible indistinction, and modern democracies necessarily face an unsurmountable dilemma because they consider that the freedom and happiness of human beings depend on the very element that marks their subjection, i.e. their biological life. Today, Agamben claims, politics knows no value other than (bare) life, and the risk of fascism and totalitarianism will remain with us until the contradictions that this fact entails are resolved—and of course he sees in States’ responses to the coronavirus pandemic a blatant confirmation of his ideas.
Let me be clear: at least some of these risks exist, and I’m not suggesting that worrying about them is not legitimate. If we espouse what Foucault once described as his “hyper- and pessimistic activism,” according to which, since everything is not necessarily bad, but it is potentially dangerous (that’s the pessimistic side of this activism), we always have something to do (that’s the hyper- side of this activism), we may even suggest that it’s helpful and somewhat healthy to have these quite extreme critical positions represented in the public debate. However, Foucault also invited us to concretely determine the main danger in the present moment, and to focus our critical efforts on that. In my opinion, one of the main dangers today is constituted by the differential and, I will argue, unjust character of biopolitical technologies of power—something that many public actors and discourses systematically try to mask or even (in some cases) to present as a good thing given that what really matters is the health of the population as a whole (I’ll come back to that). What I would like to argue is that, in order to confront this danger, we need to go beyond Foucault and treat the notion of biopolitics not only as a descriptive one (as Foucault does most of the time), but also as a normative one, that is, as a notion that indicates a set of power technologies which necessarily rely on and lead to the organization of a system of differential vulnerabilities that should be considered as unjust. Hence, the “normativity” of biopolitics that I refer to in my title is actually not the kind of normativity (normation/normalization) that Foucault talks about, nor is it used in Canguilhem’s sense (normativity attached to life itself): it is “normativity” in the political philosophy or critical theory sense—something that tells us what is right/wrong, just/unjust. On this basis, but with a Foucauldian twist nonetheless, I will suggest that one of our tasks today is the elaboration of what I call a “critical theory of biopolitical rights,” that is, rights whose normativity stems precisely from the biopolitical technologies of power that manage our biological lives under specific economic, social, and political circumstances.
The talk will proceed as follows. In the first section, I will discuss some methodological questions linked to Foucault’s work on biopolitics and to what I call the “blackmail” of biopolitics. In the second section, I will explain why I think that one of Foucault’s most interesting and relevant insights in this regard is the claim that biopolitics necessarily entails (and by that I mean: both relies on and produces) a politics of differential vulnerability. In the third section, using an “immanent critique” strategy, I will argue that this politics of differential vulnerability should be construed as a specific form of injustice. Finally, in the fourth section, I will suggest that a strategic move we could make in order to fight against the injustice entailed by biopolitical mechanisms of power consists in developing the notion of “biopolitical rights.” Of course, this is only a strategic move that still remains within the framework of biopolitics—one that doesn’t aim to reverse the framework itself. But as Foucault once remarked, there are advantages in focusing on specific, limited, partial transformations, on what he called “counter-conducts,” without always trying to embark in global and radical projects aimed at giving birth to another society and another world. I will therefore limit myself to sketching one strategy, hopefully a realistic one, that we can implement to deal with the current situation, without attempting to offer any definitive “solution” to the problems we are facing—which are too complex and multifaceted to be dealt with in terms of a simple problem-solving approach.
1. The “Blackmail” of Biopolitics
The first point that I would like to make, in relation to Foucault’s work on biopolitics, is that this notion, as he develops it in 1976 in the first volume of his History of Sexuality and in the lecture course, “Society Must Be Defended”, wasn’t meant to show us how evil this form of power actually is. At the same time, however, Foucault didn’t mean to praise biopolitics either—of course. In coining this notion, he wanted first and foremost to make us aware of the historical crossing of a threshold, and more specifically of what he calls a society’s “seuil de modernité biologique” (“threshold of biological modernity”). Our Western societies crossed such a threshold when the biological processes characterizing the life of human beings as a species became a crucial issue for political decision-making, a new “problem” to be addressed by governments—and this, importantly, not only in “exceptional” circumstances (such that of an epidemic), but in “normal” circumstances as well. Especially in normal, everyday circumstances, I would say: this becomes a permanent concern which defines what Foucault also calls the “étatisation du biologique” (the “nationalization of the biological”).
To remain faithful to Foucault’s methodological principle according to which power is not good or bad in itself, but that it is always dangerous (if accepted blindly, that is, without questioning it in its manifestations, without asking the question: should I accept it?), one could say that this “paradigm shift” in the way in which we are governed, with both its positive and its negative outcomes, corresponds at the very least to a dangerous extension of the domain of intervention of power mechanisms. We are no longer governed only as political subjects of law, endowed with a set of liberties and rights (and a corresponding set of duties), but also and primarily as living beings who, collectively, form a global mass—a “population”—with a natality rate, a mortality rate, a morbidity rate, an average life expectancy, etc. The tension between these two levels or forms of governmentality is, I think, crucial to bear in mind if we want to make sense of some of the challenges that we are currently facing. Foucault’s work on biopolitics points to a constitutive tension between (at least) two ways in which we are governed: as citizens and subjects of rights, on the one hand, and as living beings, as part of a population that has a certain morbidity rate, mortality rate, etc., on the other. And it seems to me that this tension is at the roots of the current clash between biosecurity imperatives and the protection of individual rights, and of the difficulties we are experiencing in making sense of and deal with such a clash, because these two imperatives (“protect individual rights” versus “protect the life of the population as a whole,” “there are individual/human rights that are inalienable” versus “the survival of the population as a whole is more important than the rights of any given individual or group of individuals”) are deeply ingrained in our political tradition, even though Foucault helps us see that they stem from two different kinds of political/governmental rationality.
In his 1984 essay, “What is Enlightenment?”, implicitly responding to Habermas, Foucault famously claims that he wants to refuse what he calls the “‘blackmail’ of Enlightenment”—that is, the idea that we have to be either “for” or “against” the Enlightenment—and instead address Enlightenment as a historical event that still characterizes, at least to a certain extent, what we are today. I would like to suggest that, in an analogous way, Foucault also wanted to refuse what we could call the “‘blackmail’ of biopolitics”: from a strictly Foucauldian perspective, indeed, we don’t have to be “for” or “against” biopolitics, but rather address it as a historical event that still defines, at least in part (Foucault never claimed that biopolitics was the only political mechanism at work in modern and contemporary society!), the ways in which we are governed. Every time that I see people complaining about others not respecting the face covering/social distancing/quarantine/lockdown rules (and I’m often one of them!), I immediately find myself thinking about how astonishing it is that so many of us have been scrupulously respecting those rules, even when the risk of sanctions, in most situations and countries, was and still is quite low. Consequently, if we just focus on coercive measures, on being confined, controlled, and “trapped” at home during these extraordinary times, we risk overlooking the fact that disciplinary and biopolitical power mainly functions in invisible and ordinary ways—and that it is most dangerous precisely when we fail to notice it. When the exercise of power becomes so blatant and evident, it is also necessarily more fragile, more exposed to resistances, and revolts are much more easily triggered, as we have seen in the past year with anti-lockdown protests in so many countries around the world.
So, what continues to strike me, and also to worry me, is the fact that we already are for the most part docile, obedient biopolitical subjects. Biopolitical power is not exercised on our lives from the “outside,” as it were, but has been a part of what we are, of our historical form of subjectivity, for at least the past two centuries. And that’s why Foucault’s remarks on a “critical ontology of ourselves” may turn out to be helpful here, since it is the very fabric of our being that is at stake, much more than any given set of repressive measures. Of course, Foucault would say that we cannot just get rid of our historical form of being in the blink of an eye, but we can at least realize that our contemporary form(s) of subjectivity are historically, politically, and socially constructed, and therefore that they constitute one of the main “battlefields” on which power technologies and practices of freedom constantly confront each other. The “critical ontology of ourselves” is, in Foucault’s eyes, an eminently political tool, one that pushes us to consider our form(s) of subjectivity and of life as a political enjeux and the effort to transform them as a political task.
2. The (Bio)Politics of Differential Vulnerability
This is a reading of Foucault that remains faithful to his basic methodological principles, but I think it’s not enough. The second point that I would like to address—a crucial one, but unfortunately one that is rarely mentioned in the contributions mobilizing the notion of biopolitics to address the current coronavirus pandemic—is the inextricable link that Foucault establishes between biopower and racism. In an intervention published quite early, in March 2020, Judith Butler aptly remarked “the rapidity with which radical inequality, nationalism, and capitalist exploitation find ways to reproduce and strengthen themselves within the pandemic zones.” This came as a much-needed reminder in a moment in which other thinkers, such as Jean-Luc Nancy, were arguing on the contrary that coronavirus “puts us on a basis of equality, bringing us together in the need to make a common stand.” And this discourse on the alleged “democratic” character of this virus can still be widely heard, even though, luckily, it was not able to conceal the fact that there is nothing “democratic” in the ways in which people get sick and die from it. We know all too well that the incidence of the virus, both in terms of number of contagions and of number of deaths, is disproportionally higher—for many different reasons—in certain groups: essential/front-line workers, low-income workers, people of color, people with chronic illnesses, the elderly (especially those living in nursing homes and long-term care facilities). The reasons for this differential incidence of the virus within society are, as I was saying, multiple and complex, and I don’t want to suggest that it will ever be possible to completely get rid of them—but it’s important to emphasize that there is nothing natural or necessary in them.
As is well known, in the last lecture of “Society Must Be Defended”, Foucault argues that racism is “a way of introducing a break into the domain of life taken over by power: the break between what must live and what must die.” In other words, with the emergence of biopolitics, racism became a way of fragmenting the biological continuum—we all are living beings with more or less the same biological needs—in order to create hierarchies among different social groups, and thus (radical) differences in the ways in which different individuals and social groups are exposed to the risk of illness and death. What is important here is that Foucault presents this differential exposure of human beings to health, social, and environmental risks as a salient, intrinsic feature of biopolitical governmentality. And he construes racism—to which we should add all other forms of social and political discrimination, such as class inequality, forced mobility, gender discrimination, etc.—as the “condition of acceptability” of such a differential exposure of lives in a society in which, paradoxically, one of the main functions of the exercise of power, one of the main functions of “government,” should be to protect the biological life of the population. Therefore, we should carefully avoid reducing biopolitics to the famous formula “making live or letting die,” derived from the inversion of the formula that characterizes sovereign power (“taking life or letting live”). Biopolitics doesn’t consist in a clear-cut opposition of life and death, but is better understood as an effort to differentially organize the gray area between them. The current government of migration is an excellent example of this, as Martina Tazzioli convincingly argues in her last book, The Making of Migration, when talking of “biopolitics through mobility” and reminding us that biopolitics is also, and crucially, a matter of differentially governing mobility and immobility.
In short, what I find especially relevant in Foucault’s work on biopolitics is the intuition that biopolitics is always a politics of differential vulnerability—one that relies on existing biological, social, and political vulnerabilities, but one that also, at the same time, produces politically useful vulnerabilities, one that transforms these existing vulnerabilities into political tools for the government of the population. In other words, far from being a politics that aims to erase or at least to correct social, economic, gender, and racial inequalities by reminding us of our common belonging to the same biological species, biopolitics is a politics that structurally establishes hierarchies in the value of lives, producing and multiplying differential vulnerabilities as means of governing people.
“The population must be defended!” Sure. But not à tout prix and not in its entirety: biopolitical governmentality doesn’t protect biological life a priori, but transforms it into the object of a political and economic calculation whose unstable, changing results introduce significant differences in the biological continuum and among different social groups. If we may be all equal in the face of death, we are certainly not all equal in the face of the risk of death—and it is precisely our exposure to this risk that biopolitical strategies increase or decrease as a way to govern the population. Thus, the crucial question to ask is what governmental strategies States are currently elaborating and implementing to deal with the pandemic—strategies which clearly do not aim to put all of us on a basis of equality, but rely on and incessantly produce differential vulnerabilities as well as social and economic inequalities by exposing certain individuals and groups to greater risks, while more carefully protecting others. This is what biopolitics ultimately is: the government of human beings through their differential exposure to the risk of illness and death.
3. The Normativity of Biopolitics
But is the production of differential vulnerabilities something that should be criticized per se? And if that’s the case, why? In the past two years, people on the media have been arguing that the uneven impact of coronavirus on different groups within the population just reflects “nature”: those groups (e.g. the elderly) are necessarily more fragile, and therefore their situation might be unfortunate, but it is not unjust. Others have been very vocal in claiming that current policies regarding lockdowns, for instance, are actually unjust, but unjust because they focus too much on the interests of the vulnerable at the expense of the interests and freedom of the rest of the society.
Foucault’s work is not so helpful in dealing with this delicate issue, for it tends to present biopolitics as a fact of our political modernity. His genealogical approach first and foremost aims to show us that this way of governing human beings is not natural and necessary, but historically contingent and the fruit of a series of specific political, social, and economic factors. And even though Foucault clearly wanted to emphasize the risks connected to this way of governing people, and point to its dangerous aspects, he always refused to explicitly present this establishment of hierarchies in the value of lives, this multiplication and political production of vulnerabilities, as an “injustice.” This is coherent with his well-known rejection of the language of justice and injustice, and his refusal to “tell people what they should do.” Talking about prisons in the 1970s, in connection with the GIP, Foucault famously shifted attention to what people find intolerable at any given time. However, so many people today find lockdowns to be intolerable, while others think that what is intolerable is precisely the opposite: the governments’ lack of intervention and the choice of letting the virus run through the population to reach the coveted herd immunity. So, how can we adjudicate between the intolerable of exposing already vulnerable people to an even greater risk of illness and death, or of making certain individuals and groups vulnerable specifically to this pandemic, and the intolerable of forcing young and healthy people to accept so many limitations on their freedom?
Although Foucault does not provide us with tools to directly respond to this question, he does emphasize a crucial tension that I think is at the roots of this issue: the tension between the life and health of the population as a whole and the protection of a set of fundamental rights (including the right to life) of its most vulnerable parts. Building on this tension, I would like to argue that it is possible to construe biopolitics as a normative notion—which, while arguably being a non-Foucauldian move, I think is still coherent with some of the essential philosophical insights of Foucault’s work on this topic.
So, my claim is that Foucault’s notion of biopolitics is in fact normative. Biopolitics is not just a descriptive concept indicating a specific form of power that aims to protect, manage, and optimize the biological life of the population. This protection, management, and optimization are based, as I argued in the previous section, on the systematic organisation and production of forms of differential exposure of the life of individuals and groups to health, social, and environmental risks. And this is not an unfortunate historical accident that one could hope to get rid of in order to build a “democratic biopolitics.” Biopolitics just is the government of human beings through their differential exposure to the risk of illness and death. It essentially relies on the tools of statistics and probability, thus constituting a significant break vis-à-vis Medieval pastoral power or modern disciplines, which are both individualizing, as Foucault clearly shows. By contrast, biopolitics structurally relies on numbers, graphs, distributions, probabilities, risk-benefit analyses—in other words, its rationality ignores the individual, or better, addresses it only as a “case.” In Security, Territory, Population, Foucault traces the emergence of the notion of case which, he argues, “is not the individual case, but a way of individualizing the collective phenomenon of the disease, or of collectivizing the phenomena, integrating individual phenomena within a collective field.” Indeed, biopolitics doesn’t work with each individual case, but with the distribution of cases within a given population. The analysis of such distribution along certain variables allows to calculate the risk that each category of people (not necessarily each social group) is exposed to—the risk for instance of dying from Covid-19—and since risks are not the same for every individual or group in any condition or place, biopolitical rationality has developed the notion of “danger”: it is more dangerous to live in a city than in the country, it is more dangerous to be old than to be young, it is more dangerous to be a low-income worker who has to work in direct contact with other people than the CEO of a company that can organize their meetings on Zoom, etc. However, this differential distribution of risks and dangers is itself the object of political choices: not all individuals and groups who are in greater danger will be protected in the same way, but some groups will be better protected, while others will be exposed to even greater risks—the point being to govern the population as a whole, not to equally protect each and every of its members.
This is the key to understanding why there is a normativity intrinsic to biopolitics as a governmental strategy. The point is that the resulting distribution of risks among different individuals and groups within a given population has nothing natural to it. It relies, on the one hand, on the structure of society as such and the pre-existing social, economic, racial, and gender inequalities that exist within it; and, on the other hand, it is the product of political choices made in order to manage the population as a whole with the tools available at any given moment, with specific political and economic objectives in mind, and with different incentives or pressures coming from different groups within society and whose voices “matter” in clearly uneven ways.
Consequently, biopolitical governmentality is in itself indifferent to questions of social, racial, or economic justice. It works with and relies on the structural inequalities that are produced and sustained by our neoliberal societies; it doesn’t care about the reasons that make certain individuals and groups more vulnerable than others; and for the sake of the management of the population as a whole, it necessarily produces and organizes a system of differential exposure to the risk of illness and death—it actually consists in that production and organization.
Why should this politics of differential vulnerability be construed as a form of injustice? My argument here relies on the method of immanent critique: without appealing to any universal or trans-historical principle of justice, I want to show that there is a contradiction at the heart of our modern political rationality and the way in which we are governed—both, as I was saying, as subjects of rights and as living beings. On the one hand, there is the idea that (bio)power should protect and save as many lives as possible—to be as “biopolitically effective” as possible, if you wish. Yet, as I argued above, either it doesn’t actually matter whose lives it saves and whose lives it sacrifices (because it relies on purely statistical calculations), or if it does matter, biopower only reaffirms existing social, economic, and racial inequalities, so that in fact the point becomes to save the right lives while diminishing useless sacrifices to avoid social and political unrest. On the other hand, however, as subjects of rights and not just as living beings, we remain endowed with equal dignity and rights that the State has to recognize, protect, and implement (UDHR, Article 1); more specifically, each and everyone “has the right to life, liberty, and security of person” (UDHR, Article 3) and is entitled to this right “without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status” (UDHR, Article 2). The tension between these two aspects of the way in which we’re governed is evident, and it’s therefore clear that our own political rationality provides us with normative resources to criticize biopolitical technologies of power as contradicting the right to life and security that we are endowed with. As long as we are still (also) governed as subjects of rights—which of course is an issue in itself, given the widespread use of “extraordinary powers” and “states of exception” by governments all over the world in the past couple of years—we can thus rely on the immanent contradiction that exists between biopolitical mechanisms of power and the protection of individual human rights to argue that biopolitics is not only “dangerous,” but constitutes a specific form of injustice.
4. Towards a Critical Theory of Biopolitical Rights
The advantage of using immanent critique is that this conclusion doesn’t force us to subscribe to political or juridical liberalism, or to claim that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights defines rights that should be endowed to human beings in all times and places because they are actually universal and trans-historical. I can remain non-committal in that regard, for defining biopolitics as the government of human beings through the political production and organization of their differential exposure to the risk of illness and death allows me to reveal a tension or contradiction within our modern political rationality, and to show that biopolitics is unjust according to our current normative framework.
In the final section of my talk, however, I would like to go a step further and argue that one of our tasks today should be that of redefining human rights in terms of biopolitical rights, while also elaborating a “critical theory of biopolitical rights” as a response to the current form taken by biopolitical mechanisms of power and to their unjust effects.
I argued above that the clash we’re currently witnessing between the measures implemented to protect the biological life of the population as a whole and the protection and full exercise of our basic human rights stems directly from the functioning of biopolitics: biopolitical strategies necessarily create differential forms of exposure of individuals and groups to health, social, and environmental risks. Now I want to argue that at least some of our basic human rights can be redefined in terms of rights whose normativity stems directly from the biopolitical technologies that manage our lives under specific historical circumstances. In other words, it is not because we are human (and social) beings that we are endowed with those rights. It is rather because our lives are concretely invested, produced, and governed by biopolitical technologies, and thereby differentially exposed to various risks, that we are endowed with the right to oppose the effects of such differential exposure.
Here, a paper published in 2014 by Pheng Cheah (“Second-Generation Rights as Biopolitical Rights”) turns out to be particularly helpful. There, Cheah argues that, to better account for the normativity of second- and third-generation human rights (economic, social, and cultural rights), we should construe them as biopolitical rights. What interests me specifically in this regard is a point that Foucault makes in the first volume of his History of Sexuality and that Cheah rightly emphasizes. Foucault is commenting on the ironic fact that the struggle against power in the last two centuries has taken the form of the defense of the rights of human beings as a concrete living beings—when these rights, such as the right to life, to one’s body, to health, to the satisfaction of needs, etc., are actually nothing else than the juridical codification of the capacities of life produced by biopower:
Against this power [biopower] that was still new in the nineteenth century, the forces that resisted relied for support on the very thing it invested, that is, on life and human being as a living being. […] [W]hat we have seen has been a very real process of struggle; life as a political object was in a sense taken at face value and turned back against the system that was bent on controlling it. It was life more than the law that became the issue of political struggles, even if the latter were formulated through affirmations concerning rights. The “right” to life, to one’s body, to health, to happiness, to the satisfaction of needs […]—which the classical juridical system was utterly incapable of comprehending—was the political response to all these new procedures of power which did not derive, either, from the traditional right of sovereignty.
Cheah argues that the true basis of these rights, many of which we now understand as economic, social, and cultural rights, lies in the biopolitical technologies that regulate and produce humanity and its “life.” In other words, that these rights actually stem from the capacities and needs of bodies and populations as they are constantly fabricated by biopolitical mechanisms of power—hence Cheah’s suggestions to call these rights “biopolitical rights.” What I would like to suggest is that there is a link between these biopolitical rights and what Foucault, at the end of the 1970s, calls the “rights of the governed,” that is, those rights that individuals and groups possess because they are governed in a specific way—rights that are not founded in human nature or transcendent justice, but that derive their normativity from the specific mechanisms of power that invest the individuals and groups who are then entitled to (re)claim them.
In his book, Foucault and the Politics of Rights, Ben Golder convincingly shows that Foucault’s engagement with rights does not constitute a rejection of or a break vis-à-vis his analyses on power relations, nor a symptom of his supposed fascination with neoliberalism. Nor is Foucault’s turn to rights in the last years of his life the result of a purely contingent and momentary appropriation. By contrast, it constitutes a thoroughly worked-out contribution to an original way of conceiving of a “politics of rights.” Golder interprets this politics of rights in terms of a “critical counter-conduct of rights” which relies on the ambivalent function of law and rights in modernity: on the one hand, rights can actually “enlarge, expand, or protect the sphere of action of subjects (as well as bring new worlds and communities into being)”; on the other hand, and simultaneously, they also “constitute those very subjects and communities in particular ways and hence work to re-inscribe them within existing forms of power, recuperating and domesticating the political challenges they might pose.” Foucault’s politics of rights points precisely to this ambivalence, stressing the rights’ capacity to produce both new spaces of freedom and new forms of subjection. The discourse of rights in Foucault can thus be seen as a tactical deployment and a strategic intervention aimed not at satisfying political demands within the extant liberal or neoliberal framework, but at implementing a series of contingent practices of freedom. In short, Foucault’s conception of rights conceives of the latter as potentially useful instruments “immanent and not exterior to the field of political action.”
Now, my suggestion is to reconceptualize most human rights—and especially those I was referring to in particular, for instance the right to life and personal security—in an analogous way: we possess those rights because we are governed by (bio)power mechanisms that invest our biological lives, take our security in charge, protect and enhance our capacities, etc. Thus, instead of conceiving of life as a biological datum, we should understand it as a production of power, as a political object, and the struggle over its actual protection, the equal protection of it in each and everyone, as a form of counter-conduct opposed to the concrete functioning of biopolitical mechanisms of power. In other words, biopolitical rights should be thought of as tools to counter-act the differential vulnerabilization of specific individuals and groups that constitutes an intrinsic aspect of the functioning of biopolitics. What I hope to have shown in this talk, is that biopolitics can be construed as a normative concept which turns out to be very helpful in emphasizing an immanent contradiction in our societies, in our political discourse, in our governmental strategies. That biopolitics is therefore a useful critical concept, as it indicates a specific form of injustice. And that to elaborate ways to fight against this injustice, it may be urgent to reconceive human rights in terms of biopolitical rights—thanks to which we can make explicit demands on States and governments when it comes to how our lives are concretely governed. We need to be inventive of new ways of living but also willing to protect our rights as governed—our biopolitical rights. This will hopefully help us avoid both the risk of the (disciplinary) dream, or nightmare, of a perfectly immune or aseptic society, and the biopolitical-eugenic dream, or nightmare, of a society that would be happy to get rid of its most vulnerable parts, or better, of those individuals and groups that it constitutes as such.
Daniele Lorenzini is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick.