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Panagiotis Sotiris:

"The notion of biopolitics, as it was formulated by Michel Foucault, has been a very important contribution to our understanding of the changes associated with the passage to capitalist modernity, especially in regards to the ways that power and coercion are exercised. From power as a right of life and death that the sovereign holds, we pass to power as an attempt to guarantee the health (and productivity) of populations.2 This led to an expansion without precedent of all forms of state intervention and coercion. From compulsory vaccinations to bans on smoking in public spaces, the notion of biopolitics has been used in many instances as the key to understanding the political and ideological dimensions of health policies.

At the same time, it has allowed us to analyse various phenomena that are often repressed in the public sphere, from the ways that racism attempted to find a ‘scientific’ grounding to the dangers of trends such as eugenics. And indeed Agamben has used it in a constructive way, in his attempt to theorise the modern forms of a ‘state of exception’, namely spaces where extreme forms of coercion are put in practice, with the concentration camp the main example." (


Foucault's Care of the Self as a Biopolitical alternative

Panagiotis Sotiris:

"Foucault himself, in his late work, points towards such a direction, around the notions of truth, parrhesia and care of the self.5 In this highly original dialogue with ancient philosophy, in particular Hellenistic and Roman, he suggested an alternative politics of bios that combines individual and collective care, based on a certain obligation and courage to tell the truth, in non-coercive ways.

In such a perspective, the decisions for the reduction of movement and for social distancing in times of epidemics, or for not smoking in closed public spaces, or for avoiding individual and collective practices that harm the environment, would be the result of democratically discussed collective decisions based on the knowledge available and as part of a collective effort to care for others and ourselves. This means that from simple discipline we move to responsibility, in regards to others and then ourselves, and from suspending sociality to consciously transforming it. In such a condition, instead of a permanent individualized fear, which can break down any sense of social cohesion, we move towards the idea of collective effort, coordination and solidarity within a common struggle, elements that in such health emergencies can be equally important to medical interventions.

This offers the possibility of a democratic biopolitics. This can also be based on the democratization of knowledge. The increased access to knowledge, along with the need for popularization campaigns makes possible collective decision processes that are based on knowledge and understanding and not just the authority of experts." (

Biopolitics from below

Panagiotis Sotiris:

"The battle against HIV, the fight of stigma, the attempt to make people understand that it is not the disease of ‘high risk groups’, the demand for education on safe sex practices, the funding of the development of therapeutic measures and the access to public health services, would not have been possible without the struggle of movements such as ACT UP. One might say that this was indeed an example of a biopolitics from below." (

The potential of COVID-19

Panagiotis Sotiris:

"in the current conjuncture, social movements have a lot of room to act. They can ask of immediate measures to help public health systems withstand the extra burden caused by the pandemic. They can point to the need for solidarity and collective self-organization during such a crisis, in contrast to individualized “survivalist” panics. They can insist on state power (and coercion) being used to channel resources from the private sector to socially necessary directions. They can organize struggles for paid sick leave and for an end to measures such as eviction. They can put their collective ingenuity in practice to create forms of support for the elderly and those without any assistance. They can project, in all possible ways, the fact that today the struggle against the pandemic is a struggle waged by labour, not capital, by doctors and nurses in understaffed public health systems, by precarious workers in the vital supply chains, by those that keep basics infrastructure running during the lock-down. And they can demand social change as a life-saving exigency." (


The role of Foucault

Emanuele Leonardi:

" As a starting point, from an empirical, micro-physical perspective, it is possible to situate the emergence of biopolitics in the progressive implementation of governmental technologies of power whose specific goal is the simultaneous empowerment of individual and collective bodies. With the term governmentality, Foucault articulates three aspects:

a) the ensemble of institutions, tactics and analyses that allow a specific kind of power to be exercised over the population (through a knowledge apparatus defined by political economy and a set of technical dispositifs oriented towards security);

b) the historical tendency of this new kind of power to become prominent over older forms of power;

c) the process through which, from the Middle Ages onwards, the state shifts progressively from being juridically-based to being thought of in terms of administrative procedures and, finally, to being entirely governmentalised (Foucault 2007).

This set of practices, initially proposed in the second half of the Eighteenth century, was organised around four main fields of intervention: natality, morbidity, ability , and, most importantly from our standpoint, environment (Foucault 2003). As a consequence of this, biopolitics is deployed through four different types of social control.

Firstly, this form of power is exercised over phenomena such as fecundity and longevity by means of demographic regulation and statistical analysis.

Secondly, it refers to health variables such as endemic and epidemic diseases through a conception of death as a decreasing factor of individual and collective performances, whose inevitable outcomes involve an increase regarding the administrative costs of treatments and, more generally, a reduction of efficiency in the medical regulation of society. Thirdly, biopower intervenes on aleatory events which imply a more or less severe reduction of social abilities (such as accidents, infirmities, anomalies, and old age) by means of the we can easily realise that biopolitics as an object of development of a pervasive system of governmental insurance.

Finally, as we shall see in more detail later in this section, biopolitics implies the political creation of an intermediate space between natural environment and artificial urbanisation, investing in particular the process of shaping natural systems (both at the climatic and hydrographical level) according to governmental expansive necessities. The second historical point, already introduced by mentioning the issue of urbanisation, concerns the relationship between the emergence of biopolitics and the process of industrialisation or, by extension, by the rise of capitalism as a dominant mode of production. In Foucault, it seems to us, the link between these two dimensions is inextricable. In his works, we can find both direct and indirect proofs of this crucial contiguity.

In “The Birth of Social Medicine,” a lecture delivered in Brazil in October 1974, Foucault writes:

- I advance the hypothesis that with capitalism we did not shift from a collective medicine to a private one. On the contrary, it is the opposite that actually occurred. Capitalism, which developed at the end of the Eighteenth century and at the beginning of the Nineteenth, had initially socialised a first object, the body, as a function of productive forces, of labour power. The social control on individuals did not only take place through consciousness or ideology, but also within the body. For a capitalist society it is above all biopolitics the fundamental issue: the biological, the somatic, the corporeal. The body is a biopolitical reality, medicine is a biopolitical strategy (Foucault 1994a: 209-210.Our translation).

Similarly, in a pivotal passage of the first volume of The History of Sexuality we can read the following statement:

- This biopower was without question an indispensable element in the development of capitalism; the latter would not have been possible without the controlled insertion of bodies into the machinery of production and the adjustment of the phenomena of population to economic processes [...] The adjustment of the accumulation of men to that of capital, the joining of the growth of human groups to the expansion of productive forces and the differential allocation of profit, were made possible in part by the exercise of biopower in its many forms and modes of application. The investment of the living body, its valorisation, and the distributive management of its forces were at the time indispensable (Foucault1978: 140-141).

Along with these explicit references, however, we can also find in Foucault's corpus of the late 1970s indirect proofs of the link between biopolitics and capitalism. From this perspective, the best example is perhaps “The Meshes of Power,” a lecture delivered in Brazil in 1976. We refer to it as an “indirect” proof since Foucault does not specifically address the nature of the bond between capitalism and biopolitics, but rather recognises in Marx the main precursor of a new, anti-representative modality to approach power in its “real functioning” (Foucault 1994: 186). In other words, what interests us here is to show how the critique of political economy proposed by Marx constitutes a fundamental condition of possibility (certainly amongst many others) for the issue of biopolitics to be addressed. In “The Meshes of Power” Foucault complains about the fact that power has been analysed, at least within the context of Western society (Kant, Durkheim and Lévi-Strauss are listed), in a restrictive way mainly based around the ideas of prohibition and detachment . Anticipating a well-known argument that will be developed shortly after, Foucault criticises this juridical notion of power and declares his intention to study power in its positive, productive dimension. As a consequence of this, he asks: “How can we attempt to analyse power in its positive mechanisms?” Reading Marx, especially the second volume of Capital (Marx 1971), seems to be a proper answer to this question. Foucault finds in the Marx of fixed and circulating capital four elements that allows the positive technologies of a new form of power to be seen, analysed and, possibly, critiqued. First, Marx clearly recognises that power is by nature heterogeneous, plural and excessive: “There is not just one form of power, but several ones [...] Society is an archipelago of different powers”. Second, Marx convincingly shows that force relations are local, regional, specific, and that their legal unification is the result of a secondary process. Third, the specific goal of these regional powers does not consist in restraining from acting, but is rather configured as a permanent incitement to produce “an efficiency, an attitude”. Finally, power is inherently technological and the historical traces of its mechanisms are to be found in practical implementations rather than in a posteriori ideological justifications.

At this point, implicitly announcing the analysis he was going to publish, Foucault concludes:

- Well, what I would like to do – reworking what has been found in the second volume of Capital, and refusing what has been subsequently added on the privileges of the state apparatus, the reproductive function of power, the features of the juridical superstructure – what I would like to do is an attempt to see how is it possible to elaborate a history of powers in the West, and essentially of powers as they are invested in sexuality (Foucault 1994b: 189).

To sum up this first part of our discussion, we might say the following: when Foucault insists that Western society, in the course of the second half of the Eighteenth century, has crossed a “threshold of biological modernity” and has consequently “wagered the life of the species on its own political strategies” (Foucault 1978: 143), he intends to establish a line not of homology, but rather of convergence amongst the theoretical triad of biopolitics, governmentality and capitalism. Those concepts, in other words, do not by any means identify the same set of phenomena. On the contrary, their specificity should be jealously preserved (the risk here is that of a linearisation of the historical process, potentially at the service of yet another grand narrative). Simply, they converge not primarily in their chronological simultaneity (which is, after all, far from perfectly congruent) but, more importantly, in the unprecedented political intelligibility that their integration provides. A whole set of contemporary problematic issues, in fact, emerge at the intersection of these three practico-theoretical elements and are, we contend, more easily understood and acted upon from this complex but profoundly fruitful perspective."


More information

* Article: Against Agamben: Is a Democratic Biopolitics Possible? By Panagiotis Sotiris March 20, 2020