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This article is about Michel Foucault's social theory. For the Saab automobile engine of the same name, see Saab H engine. For transesterified lipids used as a fuel source, see Biodiesel.

"Biopower" (or biopouvoir in French) is a term coined by French scholar, historian, and social theorist Michel Foucault. It relates to the practice of modern nation states and their regulation of their subjects through "an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations".[1] Foucault first used the term in his lecture courses at the Collège de France,[2][3] but the term first appeared in print in The Will To Knowledge, Foucault's first volume of The History of Sexuality.[4] In Foucault's work, it has been used to refer to practices of public health, regulation of heredity, and risk regulation, among many other regulatory mechanisms often linked less directly with literal physical health. It is closely related to a term he uses much less frequently, but which subsequent thinkers have taken up independently, biopolitics.

Foucault and the concept of biopower

Bio-power can be understood as the sole prerogative of the modern Nation state to "make live and let die" which is distinct from the medieval system of rule by the singular sovereign an invention from the sovereign power derived from the ancient legal apparatus of Roman law Pater familias which would be "let live and make die" defined by the personal power of a monarch.[5][6] This kind of attitude of the state toward the lives of its social subjects Foucault argues, is a way of understanding the new formation of power in Western society.

For Foucault, biopower is a technology of power for managing people as a large group; the distinctive quality of this political technology is that it allows for the control of entire populations. It is an integral feature and essential to the workings of—and makes possible—the emergence of the modern nation state and capitalism, etc.[7] Biopower is literally having power over bodies; it is "an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations".[8] Foucault elaborates further in his lecture courses on Biopower entitled Security, Territory, Population delivered at the Collège de France between January and April 1978:

It relates to governmental concerns of fostering the life of the population, "an anatomo-politics of the human body a global mass that is affected by overall characteristics specific to life, like birth, death, production, illness, and so on.[10] It produces a generalized disciplinary society[11] and regulatory controls through biopolitics of the population".[12][13][14] In his lecture Society Must Be Defended, Foucault's tentative sojourner into biopolitical state racism, and its accomplished rationale of myth-making and narrative, he states the fundamental difference between biopolitics[15] and discipline:

Foucault claims that the previous Greco-Roman, Medieval rule of the emperors, the Divine right of kings and Absolute monarchy[17] model of power and social control over the body was an individualizing mode. However,after the emergence of the medieval metaphor body politic which meant society as a whole with the ruler, in this case the king, as the head of society with the so-called Estates of the realm next to the monarch with the majority of the peasant population or feudal serfs at the bottom of the hierarchical pyramid, this meaning of the metaphor was then codified into medieval law for the offence of high treason and if found guilty the sentence ofHanged,drawn and quartered was carried out .[18][19] However, this was drastically altered with the advent of political power in 18th century Europe. The voting franchise, liberal democracy and Political parties, universal adult suffrage exclusively male at this time, eventually extended to women in 1929 in Europe and extending to people of African heritage in America in 1964 African American descent, for further information on this see also Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The emergence of the human sciences and its subsequent direction primarily aimed at modern western man and the society he inhabits, together with the invention of Disciplinary institutions.[20][21][22] During the 16th and 18th centuries with the advent of anatomo-politics of the human body a transition occurred through forcible removal of various European monarchs into a 'scientific' state apparatus and the radical overhaul of judiciary practices coupled with the reinvention and division of those who were to be punished.[23]

A second mode for seizure of power was invented and discovered; while this type of power was stochastic and "massifying", not "individualizing",as in respect to the king, as in previous cases. By "massifying" Foucault means transforming into a population ("population state") with an extra added impetus of a governing mechanism in the form of a scientific machinery and apparatus. This scientific mechanism which we now know as the State "governs less" of the population and concentrates more on administrating external devices: such as money, policy making decisions, military technology, education, medical administration, social welfare, criminal and legal legislation, production and industrial output, industrial legislation etc., allowing the population to 'govern themselves'. This power is no longer "directed at man-as-body, but at man-as-species".[24]

Foucault argues that nation states, police, government, legal practices, human sciences and medical institutions have their own rationale, cause and effects, strategies, technologies, mechanisms and codes and have managed successfully in the past to obscure their workings by hiding behind observation and scrutiny. Foucault insists social institutions such as governments, laws, religion, politics, social administration, monetary institutions, military institutions cannot have the same rigorous practices and procedure with claims to independent knowledge like those of the human sciences;such as mathematics, chemistry, astronomy, physics, genetics and the biological sciences.[25] Foucault saw these differences in techniques as nothing more than 'behaviour control technologies', and modern biopower as nothing more than a series of webs and networks working its way around the societal body.

The exercise of power in the service of maximizing life carries a dark underside. When the state is invested in protecting the life of the population, when the stakes are life itself, anything can be justified. Groups identified as the threat to the existence of the life of the nation or of humanity can be eradicated with impunity.

Milieu intérieur and Biopower

Foucault concentrates his attention on what he calls the major political and social project namely the Milieu intérieur (the environment within). How did the project milieu become interwoven into the political and social relations of men? Foucault takes as his starting point from the 16th century right up until the 18th century with the milieu culminating into the founding disciplines of science, mathematics,[27] political economy and statistics[28][29] Foucault makes an explicit point on the value of secrecy of government (arcana imperii from the Latin which means secrecy of power Secrets of the empire which goes back to the time of the Roman empire in the age of Tacitus) coined by Jean Bodin. Which, according to Foucault, had to be incorporated into a politics of truth (Foucault means public opinion he also mentions a group called The Ideologues[30]) through raison d'état.[31] Here the modern version of Government is presented in the national media, both in the electronic medium-television and radio and especially in the written press as the modicum of efficiency, fiscal optimization,responsibility and rigorousness a public discourse and social consensus is emphasized on these four points.What general components that were essential and necessary to make this consensus happen?Foucault traces the first dynamics, the first historical dimensions belonging to the early middle ages.

While Foucault doesn’t mention him by name, one key note thinker which forms a parallel with Foucault’s own work an Medieval historian from this period;Ernst Kantorowicz[32][33][34][35] gets a brief mention here.Kantorowicz mentions a Medieval device known as the Body politic (the king’s two bodies) this Medieval device was so well received that it was incorporated and codified into Medieval society and law institutions(Kantorowicz mentions the term Corporation which would later become an economic category[36]) which was well received by both legal theorists and lawyers of the day (experts in jurisprudence and law science, appeal of treason and The Lords Appellant) and cites the Plowden Reports.[37] In Kantorowicz analysis a Medieval Political theology emerges right throughout the middle ages which provided the modern basis for the democratization of the hereditary succession the modern political hierarchical order[38][39](in other words the democratization of Sovereignty,known as,in modern political terms Liberal democracy) reserved exclusively for the monarchy(the king) the church and the Nobility[40] based purely on Primogeniture.[41] A Medieval triumvirate appears, a private enterprise of wealth and succession which required fractious co-operation, this co-operation was needed by the three groups in an uneasy Medieval alliance (throughout its history it was never a smooth arrangement see Barons war) while, at times, appeared fractious this triumvirate; reserved exclusively for the monarchy, church and the titled landed nobility co-operation had to emerge via the law and legal apparatus of the day.

What is the reasoning behind the whole population subservience with the worshiping of state emblems, symbols and related mechanisms with their associates who represent the institutional mechanism (democratization of sovereignty); where fierce loyalty from the population is presented, in modern times as universal admiration for the president, the monarch and the prime minister, one could argue is it irony or fierce logic that dictates this sort of behaviour. Well, which one is it? Foucault would argue that while all the cost benefits were met by the new founded urban population in the form of production and Political power that it is precisely this type of behaviour which keeps the well-oiled machine smoothly ticking over and ultimately giving the Nation state not only its rationale but its ‘governing less’ impenetrable apparatus. In other words, it is dictated by our own inherited political rationality which gives the false impression and appearance of joint solidarity giving the machine (Foucault uses the term Dispositif) not only legitimacy but an air of invincibility from its main primary sources: reason, truth, freedom, and human existence.

Foucault makes special note on the biological “naturalness” of the human species and the new founded scientific interest that was developing around not only with the species interaction with milieu and technology, but,most importantly, technology operating as system not as so often portrayed by the political and social sciences which insisted on technology operating as social improvement. Both milieu, natural sciences and technology, allied with the characteristics surrounding social organization and increasingly the categorization of the sciences to help deal with this “naturalness” of milieu and of the inscription of truth onto nature. Due to Foucault’s discussions with Georges Canguilhem,[42] Foucault notices that not only was milieu now a newly discovered scientific biological naturalness ever-present in Lamarckian Biology the notion (biological naturalness) was actually invented and imported from Newtonian mechanics(Classical mechanics) via Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon due to Buffon mentorship and friendship with Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and used by Biology in the middle of the 18th century borrowing from Newton the explanatory model of an organic reaction through the action of “milieu Newtonian” physics used by Isaac Newton and the Newtonians.[43] Humans (the species being mentioned in Marx) were now both the object of this newly discovered scientific and ‘natural’ truth and new categorization, but subjected to it allied by laws, both scientific and Natural law (scientific Jurisprudence), the state’s mode of governmental rationality to the will of its population. But, most importantly, interaction with the social environment and social interactions with others and the modern nation state’s interest in the populations wellbeing and the destructive capability that the state possess in its armoury and it was with the group who called themselves the économistes[44] (Vincent de Gournay, François Quesnay, François Véron Duverger de Forbonnais and Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot[45][46]) who continued with the rationalization of this “naturalness”. Foucault notices that this “naturalness” continues and is extended further with the advent of political society with the new founded implement ‘population’ and their (political population) association with raison d'état.[47][48]

See also


  1. ^ Michel Foucault The History of Sexuality Vol 1 p. 140 (1976)
  2. ^ Michel Foucault: Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France 1977-1978 pp. 1–4; see notes on p. 24, notes, 1–4 (2007)
  3. ^ Michel Foucault: Society Must Be Defended Lectures at the Collège de France 1975-1976 p. 243 (2003)
  4. ^ Michel Foucault, (1998) The History of Sexuality Vol. 1: The Will to Knowledge. London: Penguin
  5. ^ Foucault, Michel (1976). The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volume 1. Penguin. pp. 135–161. 
  6. ^ Foucault, Michel (1976). The History Of Sexuality. Penguin. pp. 137–140. 
  7. ^ "Amedeo Policante. "War against Biopower: Timely Reflections on an Historicist Foucault", Theory & Event, 13. 1 March 2010". Retrieved 29 October 2014. 
  8. ^ Michel Foucault The History of Sexuality Vol. 1: The Will to Knowledge. London: Penguin. p. 140 (1998)
  9. ^ Security, Territory, Population p. 1 (2007)
  10. ^ Nature Vol 490 p. 309, 2012
  11. ^ Security, Territory, Population pp. 377-378, 2007
  12. ^ Security, Territory, Population p. 378 2007
  13. ^ Security, Territory, Population’’, see also note 71, p. 397 2007
  14. ^ The History Of Sexuality Vol 1 p. 139 1976
  15. ^ Security, Territory, Population pp. 363-391 2007
  16. ^ Society Must Be Defended pp. 239-264 (2003)
  17. ^ Security, Territory, Population pp. 363-401 2007
  18. ^ A declaration which offences shall be adjudged treason (25 Edw 3 St 5 c 2) 1351 "When a man does compass or imagine the death of our lord the king, or of our lady his Queen, or their eldest son and heir."
  19. ^ For an excellent account of this legislation see John Barrell Imagining The Kings Death Figurative Treason, Fantasies of Regicide, 1793-1796 (2000)
  20. ^ Security, Territory, Population p. 16 2007
  21. ^ Security, Territory, Population pp. 55-86 2007
  22. ^ Security, Territory, Population pp. 1-27, 2007
  23. ^ Security, Territory, Population pp. 163-190 2007
  24. ^ Michel Foucault: Society Must Be Defended Lectures at the Collège de France 1975-1976 p. 243 (2003)
  25. ^ Serge Lang Challenges pp. 1-222 See Chapter Academia, Journalism, and Politics: A Case Study: The Huntington Case (Serge Lang refers to his dispute with Samuel P. Huntington at the National Academy of Sciences) (1998)
  26. ^ The History of Sexuality Volume 1 p. 137
  27. ^ Security, Territory, Population p.296 p.308 Note 14 2007
  28. ^ Security, Territory, Population p.29-49 2007
  29. ^ Security, Territory, Population, pp.55-86 2007
  30. ^ Security, Territory, Population, pp.55-86, pp.83-84, Note 27, 2007
  31. ^ Security, Territory, Population pp.275-278, p.283, Notes 63-64 2007
  32. ^ Foucault does mention Kantorowicz by name this is reflected in the following references Michel Foucault Discipline and Punish pp.25-29 1977
  33. ^ Parrhesia:A Journal of Critical Philosophy 5 pp.9-18 2008
  34. ^ Discipline and Punish p.330 1977
  35. ^ Artur Golczewski Sovereign Right, Democracy and the Rule of Law Universitas 2006
  36. ^ Ernst Kantorowicz The King's Two Bodies A Study In Mediaeval Political Theology pp.273-313 1956
  37. ^ Duchy Of Lancaster (1561) 1 Plowden 212,213
  38. ^ The King's Two Bodies A Study In Mediaeval Political Theology pp.42-78 1956
  39. ^ The King's Two Bodies A Study In Mediaeval Political Theology pp.87-107 1956
  40. ^ The King's Two Bodies A Study In Mediaeval Political Theology pp.192-273 1956
  41. ^ The British historian Madge places the barons majority ownership of all land at 50.5% in 1086 (in 1065 it was 50.7%) by the time of the Norman conquest the monarch of the day—according to Madge—wasn’t, by all accounts, majority land owner, his percentage share was just 20.5% in 1065 before the conquest and dropped to 19.9% after the conquest in 1086, the monarch had to share that right with the powerful Roman Catholic church of the day (the church’s share was 28.8% in 1065; at the end of the conquest in 1086 it was 29.6%). This necessitated an efficient accountancy, and auditing system based on the basic premise; what was the overall fiscal responsibility and liability of the Exchequer, Treasury and the whole kingdom of the realm (kingdom in this case means the Barons and the church who funded the King’s expenditure) and its ruler the King? Known as the Barons of the exchequer, run, supervised and organized by the barons of the day. Sidney J Madge, The Domesday Of Crown Lands, pp.20-21, 1930
  42. ^ Security, Territory, Population, pp.26-27, see Notes 37-38, 2007
  43. ^ Security, Territory, Population, pp.20, pp.26-27, see Notes 33 and 37, 2007
  44. ^ officially known as the Physiocrats), see Security, Territory, Population, pp.34-53, pp.55-86, p.52, Note 17, 2007
  45. ^ Foucault makes mention of Vincent de Gournay in Security, Territory, Population, p.51, Note 15, 2007
  46. ^ Security, Territory, Population, pp.333-361, pp.348-349, 2007
  47. ^ Security, Territory, Population, pp.55-86, p.81, Note 19, 2007
  48. ^ Security, Territory, Population, pp.285-286, 2007


  • Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended
  • Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population
  • Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer
  • Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire
  • Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude

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