The Right of Death and Power Over Life / Society Must Be Defended

Here is the reading for April 9.  It is a long one, because it is basically a reading and a half, but my summer schedule is getting too busy.  Here is a printable copy.

Foucault begins with a definition of sovereignty: “For a long time, one of the characteristic privileges of sovereign power was the right to decide life and death” (135).  It was derived from the power of the Roman head of household, who had the right to “dispose” of the lives of his children and slaves.  He gave them life, so he could take it away.  By the time the “classical theoreticians” considered it, it had gone from being an absolute power to one that was only exercised when the sovereign’s existence was threatened, like during a war.  Specifically, by drafting subjects, he could “expose their life”.  Conscription was an indirect power of life and death.  Against treason, there was a direct power of execution. So the power of life and death was conditional: the protection of the sovereign’s existence.

Hobbes saw it as people transferring their right to violent self-defense to the prince.  Does that still apply, or was there something new? In its modern form, the right of life and death is asymmetrical: “The sovereign exercised his right of life only by exercising his right to kill, or by refraining from killing; he evidenced his power over life only through the death he was capable of requiring.  The right which was formulated as the ‘power of life and death’ was in reality the right to take life or let live. (136).  That sovereignty was attached to a kind of legal in order in which the exercise of power was mainly about subtraction, that is, taking resources via taxation and other mechanisms.

Things have changed.  That sort of subtraction is no longer the major form of power but only one element among others.  Power now works to “incite, reinforce, control, monitor, optimize, and organize the forces under it: a power bent on generating forces, making them grow, and ordering them, rather than one dedicated to impeding them, making them submit, or destroying them” (136).  There has also been a shift in the right of death–a tendency to align itself with a “life-administering” power: “This death that was based on the right of the sovereign is now manifested as simply the reverse of the right of the social body to ensure, maintain, or develop its life” (136).

However, wars remain as bloody as ever, and the sheer level of violence states direct towards their own people is new.

“But this formidable power of death–and this is perhaps what accounts for part of its force and the cynicism with which it has so greatly expanded its limits–now presents itself as the counterpart of a power that exerts a positive influence on life, that endeavors to administer, optimized, and multiply it, subjecting it to precise controls and comprehensive regulations.  Wars are no longer waged in the name of a sovereign who must be defended; they are waged on behalf of the existence of everyone; entire populations are mobilized for the purpose of wholesale slaughter in the name of life necessity: massacres have become vital. It is as managers of life and survival, of bodies and the race, that so many regimes have been able to wage so many wars, causing so many men to be killed.” (137)

It is no longer the defence of sovereignty but the defence of populations that is at stake.  Genocides have not happened with such frequency because of a return of the power to kill, but “because power is situated and exercised at the level of life, the species, the race, and the large-scale phenomena of population” (137).

Consider the death penalty, which is the other form of the power of the sword.  It was the reply of the sovereign to those who threatened his will or law.  Executions became more rare as casualties in war increased, but the same reasons governed these respective decreases and increases: “As soon as power gave itself the function of administering life, its reason for being and the logic of its exercise–and not the awakening of humanitarian feelings–made it more and more difficult to apply the death penalty” (138).

Power’s goal was to sustain and multiply life, so how could it kill?  Capital punishment could not be maintained by pointing at the enormity of the crime, only the “monstrosity of the criminal, his incorrigibility, and the safeguard of society.  One had the right to kill those who represented a kind of biological danger to others” (138)  The ancient right to take or allow life turned into the power to foster or disallow life.

Under a regime of sovereignty, death was the borderline between two sovereignties–Earthly and heavenly.  Rituals surrounding death were a kind of political ceremony, noting the passing from the City of Man to the City of God: “Now it is over life, throughout its unfolding, that power establishes its dominion; death is power’s limit, the moment that escapes it; death becomes the most secret aspect of existence, the most ‘private'” (138).

Suicide, a crime because usurps the sovereign’s power over death, was one of the first subjects studied by sociology. The idea that someone would want to die was one of the first big surprises in a society that assigned itself the task of administering life.

This power over life sprang up in the 17th century in two forms.  They were two poles.  One pole centered on the body as a machine, to discipline and optimize it, to increase its usefulness.  It was an “anatomo-politics of the body”. The second, which appeared later, was concerned with the biological processes.  It was interested in births, life expectancy, etc., and everything affecting these.  It was a “bio-politics of the population” (139).

The sovereign power of death was replaced by the administration of bodies.  With disciplinary measures such as schools and barracks, there was also close attention paid to birthrates, public health, housing, and migration.  It was an explosion of techniques for subjugating bodies and controlling populations, and began the era of biopower.

Bio-power was a major part of the development of capitalism, which could not have developed “without the controlled insertion of bodies into the machinery of production and the adjustment of the phenomena of population to economic processes” (141).  It needed the availability and docility of people; to optimize aptitudes and life in general without making it less governable. Hence, discipline and bio-power were vital 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” (141).

The connection of moral asceticism—the protestant work ethic—to the development of capitalism has been well explored, but there was another major element: the entry of life into history.  This was not the first time life and history were connected—the biological had always exerted pressure on history, through things like famines and epidemics.  But the agricultural development of the 18th century created a large surplus of resources, and famines became less of a worry.  A relative control over life relaxed some of the risk of death.  in that context, methods of power and knowledge took control over and responsibility for life:

“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 the knowledge’s field of control and power’s sphere of intervention.  Power would no longer be dealing simply with legal subjects over home 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.” (142-143)

“But what might be called a society’s ‘threshold of modernity’ has been reached when the life of the species is wagered on its own political strategies.  For millennia, man remained what he was for Aristotle: a living animal with the additional capacity for political existence; modern man is an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being in question.” (143)

This change had big consequences.  One of the consequence of the development of bio-power was the growth of “norms” as opposed to laws.  The law’s ultimate tool is death.  But a power which takes charge of life needs regulatory mechanisms.   Death is no longer part of sovereignty, but the distribution of value and utility:  “Such a power has to qualify, measure, appraise, and hierarchize, rather than display itself in its murderous splendour; it does not have to draw the line that separates the enemies of the sovereign from his obedient subjects; it effects distributions around the norm” (144).

It is not that the law disappears, but that it functions more and more as a norm, that it becomes a regulatory apparatus, along with medical and administrative institutions; “A normalizing society is the historical outcome of a technology of power centred on life” (144).

Even resistance against power relied on life. Many great struggles had no real eschatology, or a hope for a restoration of imagined ancestral rights.  Rather, what was demanded was the basic needs of life:

“The ‘right’ to life, to one’s body, to health, to happiness, to the satisfaction of needs, and beyond all the oppressions or ‘alienations,’ the ‘right’ to rediscover what one is and all that one can be, this ‘right’—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” (145).

This background helps explain the political importance of sex.  It was the pivot point of the two new political technologies.  One on hand, the discipline of the body, and on the other, the regulation of populations.   Sex involved both the body and the life of the species; that is why, in the 19th century, it was so meticulously tracked in the tiniest details of behavior, dreams, and childhood.  It “became the stamp of individuality—at the same time what enabled one to analyze the latter and what made it possible to to master it” (146).

Approaches to the politics of sex always involved both the disciplinary and the regulatory.  For example, “the hysterization of women, which involved a thorough medicalization of their bodies and sex, was carried out in the name of the responsibility they owed to the health of the their children, the solidity of the family institution, and the safeguarding of society” (147).  Sex is how power was organized around the management of life rather than the threat of death.

There has been a change from a society based on blood relations to a society based on sexual relations.  In a blood society, alliances, political power, castes, and lines of descent were predominant.  Famine and epidemics made death immanent.  The ability to shed blood had an instrumental role, and blood also had symbolic roles: to be a certain blood, to be the same blood, to risk one’s blood.  Blood was precarious: it spills, quickly dries of, gets mixed, can be corrupted.  Power spoke through blood in a society of “sanguinity”.  Blood was “a reality with a symbolic function” (147).

In contrast, we are in a society of sex.  Power is addressed to the body and life; what causes life to proliferate and its capacity to be used.  With themes like health and the future of the species, “power spoke of sexuality and to sexuality; the latter was not a mark or a symbol, it was an object and a target” (147).  Its importance was due less to its rarity than to its insistence.  It was everywhere, an object of fear and excitement at the same time.  Instead of being a reality with a symbolic function, sex is “an effect with a meaning-value” (148).

He is not saying that the change from blood to sex explains all of modernity.  He is not trying to explain the “soul” of a civilization, only for why people were constantly talking about sex:

“The new procedures of power that were devised during the classical age and employed in the nineteenth century were what caused our societies to go from a symbolics of blood to an analytics of sexuality. Clearly, nothing was more not he side of law, death, transgression, the symbolic, and sovereignty than blood; just as sexuality was on the side of the norm, knowledge, life, meaning, the disciplines, and regulations.” (148)

Blood and sex did have overlapping elements.  Blood and law continued to haunt the administration of sexuality.  For example, in the second half of the 19th century, the historical weight of blood was called upon to aid in the regulation of society, and this is where recognizably modern racism has its roots: “A eugenic ordering of society, with all that implied in the way of extension and intensification of micro-powers, in the guise of an unrestricted state control, was accompanied by the oneiric exaltation of a superior blood; the latter implied both the systematic genocide of others and the risk of exposing oneself to a total sacrifice” (150).

There was also a movement to include sex under the system of law and sovereignty.  He gives some credit to Freud (in a somewhat backhanded way) for resisting the administering the everyday life of sexuality, that is, to ground sex in the older forms of power.  That is why psychoanalysts tended to be anti-fascist.

Foucault anticipates an objection to his line of thought, namely, that he is erasing actual sex in favour of some abstract sexuality, and that his project is also a matter of figure out the secrets of sexuality.  Foucault might be finding the roots of sexuality in diffuse processes rather than the actual body, like psychoanalysis says we should. Foucault responds by saying that an analysis of sexuality does not need to ignore the anatomical.  And regardless, this whole book is about showing how power is connected to the body: “. . . far from the body having been effaced, what is needed is to make it visible through an analysis in which the biological and the historical are not consecutive to one another. . . but are bound together in an increasingly complex fashion in accordance with the development of the modern technologies of power that take life as their objective” (152). So this is not a “history of mentalities,” a history of how bodies have been given meaning, but a “history of bodies” and “the manner in which what is most material and most vital in them has been invested” (152).

Another objection appears.  If this materiality is not that of sex, then is it not strange to have a history of sexuality in which sex does not appear?  Here is the problem: that would make sex “sex in itself,” something outside of power that power only works on.  Rather, sex is a complex idea formed inside the deployment of sexuality:

“All along the great lines which the development of the deployment of sexuality has followed since the nineteenth century, one sees the elaboration of this idea that there exists something other than bodies, organs, somatic localizations, functions, anatomy-physiological systems, sensations, and pleasures; something else and something more, with intrinsic properties and laws of its own: ‘sex.’” (152-153)

So for example, in the hysterization of women, “sex” appeared in three ways.  First, as a common element between men and women.  Second, as something that was male and so lacking in women.  Finally, as something that by itself constituted a woman’s body and made her crazy.  Or in childhood, sex was present in the organs, but absent too.

Sex has another function, a practical one:

“It is through sex—in fact, an imaginary point determined by the deployment of sexuality—that each individual has to pass in order to have access to his own intelligibility (seeing that it is both the hidden aspect and the generative principle of meaning), to the whole of his body (since it is a real and threatened part of it, while symbolically constituting the whole), to his identity (since it joins of the force of a drive to the singularity of a history).  Through a reversal that doubtless had its surreptitious beginnings long ago—it was already making itself felt at the time of the Christian pastoral of the flesh—we have arrived at the point where we expect our intelligibility to come from what was for many centuries thought of as madness; the plenitude of our body from what was long considered its stigma and likened to a wound; our identity from what was perceived as an obscure and nameless urge..” (155-156)

This fascination allows power to take hold in the body.

“By creating the imaginary that is ‘sex,’ the deployment of sexuality established one of its most essential operating principles: the desire for sex—the desire to have it, to have access to it, to discover it, to liberate it, to articulate it in discourse, to formulate it in truth.  It constituted ‘sex’ itself as something desirable. And it is this desirability of sex that attaches each one of us to the injunction to know it, to reveal its law and its power; it is this desirability that makes us think we are affirming the rights of our sex against all power, when in fact we are fastened to the deployment of sexuality that has lifted up from deep within us a sort of mirage in which we think we see ourselves reflected—the dark shimmer of sex.” (156-157)

We cannot put sex on the side of reality, with sexuality on the side of illusion.  Sexuality is a real historical formation, and it gave rise to the notion of sex.  Saying yes to sex is not the same thing as saying no to power.  He suggests that a rallying point to refuse the deployment of sexuality can be found in bodies and pleasure.

Society Must Be Defended: March 17, 1976

This lecture is about how racism became state racism: basically, racism was the only way that a biopolitical state could justify wielding the murderous right of sovereignty.

In the classical theory of sovereignty, the right of life and death was one of sovereignty’s basic attributes.  What does that right actually mean?

“In one sense, to say that the sovereign has a right of life and death means that he can, basically, either have people put to death or let them live, or in any case that life and death are not natural or immediate phenomena which are primal or radical, and which fall outside the field of power.  If we take the argument a little further, or to the point where it becomes paradoxical, it means that in term of his relationship with the sovereign, the subject is, by rights, neither dead nor alive.  From the point of life and death, the subject is neutral, and it is thanks to the sovereign that the subject has the right to be alive or, possibly, the right to be dead.” (240)

This neither-alive-nor-dead is a paradox, and brought with it a practical problem.  The sovereign could not grant life in the same way that he granted death, so there was a dissymmetry in favour of death.  The sovereign’s power over life was only granted through death.  So more specifically: “It is not the right to put people to death or to grant them life.  Nor is it the right to allow people to live or to leave them to die.  it is the right to take life or let live” (240-241).

The sovereign’s old right—to take life or let live—was not entirely replaced, but supplemented by a new right.  The new right was to “make” live and “let” die.  This power,

“. . . applied not to man-as-body but to the living man, to man-as-living-being; ultimately, if you like, to man-as-species. . . . 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 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 that is affected by overall processes characteristic of birth, death, production, illness, and so on” (242-243)

The disciplines individualize, but regulations are directed at the species.  It is a biopolitics. One of the consequences is that the state’s interest in disease changed.  Before, epidemics were seen as causing swift and frequent death.  Now, disease was more a permanent factor which “sapped the populations strength, shortened the working week, wasted energy, and cost money, both because they led to a fall in production and because treating them was expensive” (244).  Death no longer swooped down on life; it gnawed at it and weakened it.

The next major element of biopolitics was control over relations between the human race as a species and their environment.  This included geographical and climatic issues, problems like swamps and the diseases which sprang from them.  It also included non-natural environments like urban areas.

The point of biopolitics is not to deal with individuals, but with general issues over time.  For example, birth rates and live expectancy were to be raised.  The human species was not to be disciplined, but to be regularized.  That power over the population was the power to make live:  “Sovereignty took life and let live.  And now we have the emergence of a power that I would call the power of regularization, and it, in contrast, consists in making live and letting die” (247).

Back to comparing discipline and regulation.  So discipline individualizes, and regulation (biopower) replaces the individual with general biological processes. It as if power, which was used to sovereignty as its model, could not quite govern a society in the midst of a population explosion and an industrial revolution.

So power has the body at one pole and the population at the other.  This lets us see the paradoxes that appear at the limits of biopower.  For example, there are nuclear weapons.  They are not just the power to kill, like old sovereignty.  Nuclear weapons are the power to kill life itself, and therefore it must surpass itself in order to guarantee life.  Either power is sovereign and uses nuclear weapons and therefore cannot be power (because everyone is dead), or sovereignty no longer has a right that is over and above biopower: “This excess of biopower appears when it becomes technologically and politically possible for man not only to manage life but to make it proliferate, to create living matter, to build the monster, and, ultimately, to build viruses that cannot be controlled and that are universally destructive.  This formidable extension of biopower, unlike what I was just saying about atomic power, will put it beyond all human sovereignty” (254).

This description of biopower will give us a window into racism. Since sovereignty is retreating, how can the power to kill function in a world of biopower?  This is where racism intervenes.  He is not saying this is the invention of racism.  Rather, this is where racism entered into the mechanisms of the modern state.

“What in fact is racism?  It is primarily a way of introducing a break into the domain of life that tis under power’s control: the break between what must live and what must die.  The appearance within the biological continuum of the human race of races, the distinction among races, the hierarchy of races, the fact that certain races are described as good and that others, in contrast, are described as inferior: all this is a way of fragmenting the field of the biological that power controls.  It is a way of separating out the groups that exist within a population.” (254-255)

It is the subdivision of the population.  So the first function of racism is to divide up the continuum created by biopower.  It also has a second function.  “Its role, if you like, is to allow the establishment of a positive relation of this type: ‘The more you kill, the more deaths you will cause’ or ‘The very fact that you let more die will allow you to live more’” (255).

Basically, if you want to live, you must kill.  It is akin to the relationship of war, but remade in the image of biopower, as biological function: “The more inferior species die out, the more abnormal individuals are eliminated, the fewer degenerates there will be in the species as a whole, and the more I—as species rather than individual—can live, the stronger I will be. . .” (255).  So it is not really a relationship of war or politics, but a biological one.  The reason this new function of racism was necessary is because the enemies are not enemies in any older political sense of the term; rather, they are threats to the population.  It is not a victory over a political adversary, but an elimination of a biological threat.

Racism is the new precondition for the right to kill.  If a power wants the right to kill, it must become racist.  He is not referring only to simple murder, “but also every indirect form of murder: the fact of exposing someone to death, increasing the risk of death for some people, or, quite simply, political death, expulsion, rejection, and so on” (256).

This helps us see why racism developed in certain ways at certain moments, for example, with colonialism.  States functioning under biopower had to justify the killing of civilizations somehow.  It also helps explain war.  How can one expose millions of one’s own citizens to death without the theme of racism?  War is now about two things: not only defeating a political adversary, but also of destroying an enemy race.  

In the 19th century, war began to be seen not only as a way of eliminating a threat, but also of improving one’s own race.  As more die, the ones that remain will be all the more pure.  So broadly speaking, racism justifies the death function in an economy of biopower: killing others makes one biologically stronger.

This is different from the usual hatred between races, or how racism is sometimes a way for states for displace the hostility against them onto a mythical enemy.  “The specificity of modern racism, or what gives it its specificity, is not bound up with mentalities, ideologies, or the lies of power.  It is bound up with the technique of power, with the technology of power” (258).

It is a mechanism that allows biopower to work; the state has to use it to allow its sovereign power to work. That is why, he says, the most murderous states are also the most racist, the obvious example being the Nazis; Nazism was the “paroxysmal development of the new power mechanisms that had been established since the eighteenth century” (259).  The Nazis also exercised more disciplinary power than any other state, and the biological was tightly regulated: “No society could be more disciplinary or more concerned with providing insurance than that established, or at least planned, by the Nazis.  Controlling the random element inherent in biological processes was one of the regime’s immediate objectives” (259).

But that society of insurance and reassurance was also one which unleashed the murderous power of sovereignty.  That power to kill, which initially was in the hands of the individuals of groups like the SS, spread out through the social body: “Ultimately, everyone in the Nazi State had the power of life and death over his or her neighbours, if only because of the practice of informing, which effectively meant doing away with the people next door, or having them done away with” (259).  That sovereign power was also expressed by the fact that war was a political objective for the Nazis, not just a tool of politics like it usually is:

“The destruction of other races was one aspect of the project, the other being to expose one’s own race to the absolute and universal threat of death.  Risking one’s life, being exposed to total destruction, was one of the principles inscribed in the basic duties of the obedient Nazi, and it was one of the essential objectives of Nazism’s policies.  Exposing the entire population to universal death was the only way it could truly constitute itself as a superior race and bring about its definitive regeneration once other races had been either exterminated or enslaved forever.” (259-260)

So what we see in the Nazi state is the perfect coincidence of biopolitics and sovereignty.  It managed and protected life, and exposed to death.  It was simultaneously racist, murderous, and suicidal.  Foucault says this mix of racism, murderousness, and suicidal tendency is built into the modern state itself, even if only the Nazis took it to an extreme. He concludes by pointing out that socialism has often been intertwined with racism and biopower, because they too had the problem of eliminating a threat to society.


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