Racism, Nationalism, Biopolitics

s0metim3s writes:

"Racism, Nationalism and Biopolitics:
Foucault's Society Must Be Defended"
Mark Kelly, Contretemps

The year 2003 saw the appearance in English of Michel Foucault's 1976 lectures from the Collège de France. Society Must Be Defended contains much to excite Foucault scholars, but this article concentrates solely on the final lecture of the series, which takes quite a different tack from the rest, concerned primarily with the history of the understanding of society and politics on the model of warfare, and brings this history into the present, with a consideration of where this mode of understanding has led in the twentieth century. Central is the consideration of the phenomenon of ‘State racism'.While this lecture was first published in French as far back as 1991 in Les Temps Modernes, it has clearly been largely overlooked, especially the potential momentousness of the use of the concept of racism developed in it. The only serious consideration of it in English (or at all for that matter) I am aware of is in Laura Ann Stoler's Race and the Education of Desire. Stoler herself notes that “no one took up” this theme of biopolitical racism from the 1976 lectures.4 The first part of this paper comprises an exegesis of Foucault's concept of state racism. Foucault's analysis is in itself tentative, experimental, describing his working suppositions, not something complete, and therefore not yet a schema to be applied to understanding politics.

Nevertheless, the second part of this paper is precisely the experimental application of the final lecture of Foucault's 1976 Collège de France lecture series to the contemporary geopolitical situation. Within the basic framework of Foucault's account of the biopolitical society and state racism, I argue, with reference to the case of Australia, that today we are seeing a move away from an ethnic state racism towards a nationalism which is premised simply on the interests of the nation as an economic, demographic entity. I then argue, using the case of the United States of America and its recent foreign policy, that the ‘War on Terror' is a biopolitical war and that it operates according to the logic of a biopolitical drive to defend the national population, justi. ed by a stripped-down state racism in which one is either with America (good) or against America (evil).

State Killing and Biopolitics

In the 1976 course, Foucault traces the history of an alternative way of doing history which grew up at the end of the Middle Ages. Previously, history had essentially been written from the point of view of the ruler, serving to stress continuity of succession. This new history challenged the status quo by positing a basic struggle in society between ruler and some or other group of ruled. This struggle was always racial, broadly speaking. In England it took the form of bourgeois and petit bourgeois elements describing themselves as the successors to the Saxon inhabitants of England as opposed to the monarchy, which represented the successors of Norman invaders (this is only one example of the kind of ways in which English society was interpreted in the light of the dichotomy of Norman and Saxon).

In France, the aristocracy complained that their rights as Frankish conquerors had been eroded by the monarchy in league with Gallo-Roman descended elements. These discourses took on any number of forms in different hands, and fairly quickly came to be colonized by state power, which took to using them to bolster its own claims. The success of these discourses of race struggle was such that they became ubiquitous as a way of thinking about society. In the eighteenth century, the state itself started to colonize these discourses, to use them to its own ends, to justify the status quo.

Ultimately, the subversive discourse of race struggle, which Foucault ‘praises', mutates utterly from the idea that there is a struggle between opposing forces which is basic to society to the idea that society itself is the agent caught in a struggle with its enemies both within and without—from the discourse of race struggle to that of state racism. This involves the idea of the nation as race, of a people as which is racially homogenous, for which internal and external racial others are dangers. We can see two lineages emerging in the nineteenth century: state racism, which denies the conflict inherent in and basic to society in favour of a conflict between society and its enemies, and another, coming down to Foucault through Nietzsche, which af. rms the primacy of struggle as the internal dynamic of every society. This co-option of the discourse of race struggle as the discourse of state racism is intimately connected with the emergence of biopolitics, one of the two great technologies of power in the modern epoch identi. ed by Foucault (the other being discipline). These two are distinguished by the levels at which they operate, and by their age (discipline is older), even though they “dovetail into” one another, which is to say, they are deeply compatible and complementary. Discipline is a technology which is concerned with individuals, the control of individual bodies; biopolitics is newer and correspondingly more sophisticated: it deals with populations at the level of the multiplicity. Where discipline is the technology deployed to make individuals behave, to be efficient and productive workers, biopolitics is deployed to manage population; for example, to ensure a healthy workforce.

The different levels at which these technologies operate is what makes them so easily compatible. Biopolitics is also contrasted by Foucault (in both The Will To Knowledge and Society Must Be Defended) with the previously existing means of controlling populations: the right of the sovereign to kill his subjects. Biopolitics is the ability to control people by maintaining them in life, not just by using the right to kill but by actually controlling life itself. It essentially involves the instruments of control of demography (control of the birth rate, and of epidemics, etc), and of environmental health (through town planning, draining swamps, etc). Now, this new technology does not replace the sovereign right to kill, nor has it ever. Biopolitics has always coexisted with the right to kill, both within the state, with the state reserving a notorious monopoly right to use (lethal) force, and outside, with the right of the state to wage war, defensively and typically also offensively. However, there is a tension or contradiction in the coexistence of biopolitics and the right to kill.

The right to kill is problematized in the movement that founds biopolitics, in that the government which uses biopolitics adopts the aim of keeping its people alive. This comes to be conceived as the proper end of all government. Foucault refers to the emergence of contractarian theories of government, in which the sovereign gains legitimacy precisely by being necessary to protect the lives and well-being of the people— hence, the state cannot legitimately harm them, since that would violate the contract.

Moreover, the biopolitical society is premised on internal homeostasis—violence can serve to shatter this stability if it is itself unregulated. Certainly, the use of violent control by despots followed a pattern of insurrection and repression. Yet the coexistence of biopolitics and the sovereign right to kill is a fact. Hence there needs to be a way in which this killing can be squared with biopolitics. This is where state racism comes in. Our society is identi. ed as a race which is threatened by racial enemies without and within; the population with which biopolitics is concerned is demarcated from the enemies of the population, with whom the sovereign power to kill is concerned. “What in fact is racism? It is primarily a way of introducing a break into the domain of life that is under power's control: the break between what must live and what must die.” State racism allows for the identification of enemies as being outside of the population, whether they are to be found inside or outside the boundaries of the state, and thus licenses the killing of these people, or simply letting them die, since part of the biopolitical technology, at least in its more developed form, is trying to keep people alive. Foucault refers to this as “indirect murder,” in which, for instance, some people are exposed to greater risks to which the body of the population would not normally be exposed.

Race and Nation

When Foucault claims that: “the modern state can scarcely function without becoming involved with racism at some point, within certain lines and subject to certain conditions...,” he is not talking about “ordinary racism,” which is to say, the simple hatred of other races, but rather, state racism, biological racism. The kind of racism that emerges in the nineteenth century is for the first time based on new paradigms from biology, on ideas of evolutionary competition and the health of the species. The challenge of this analysis is its application to the contemporary context. Every state does still need to make a distinction between those it keeps alive (and every state does have a welfare system and health service which work towards these ends) and those it kills (foreign enemies in war, executed criminals), together with those it merely allows to be exposed to greater risk of death (the victims of Third World famines, its own poor and elderly citizens). More than in 1976, however, anti-racism is now the prevailing orthodoxy. Racist discourse has become taboo — to identify speech as racist is to deny its validity. The kind of biological discourse which talks about the health of our race has gone by the board. If state racism was the mechanism by which the distinction between the biopolitical population and its outside was made, is it still so today?

Foucault takes his genealogy of the discourse of state racism as far as Nazism, which is fairly obviously the apogee of the discourse of biological racism: the German people are united by common blood, ethnicity, and have a inherent racial superiority compared to other peoples. But there is another turn taken by the discourse of state racism at around the same time as the emergence of Nazism—socialist state racism. There was plenty of ‘ordinary racism' in the Soviet Union. There was anti-semitism, and the policy of ‘Russification' of the minority nations of the union. But the kind of state racism that Foucault is referring to is racism in the broader sense —the way in which the Soviet population was perceived as a pure biological entity, threatened from within by sabotage and deviationism and by remnants of the class enemy, and from without by a world that was full of threats, the conquest of which served to make the Soviet Union stronger. A state with biopolitical aims—the aim of improving the material well-being of the population—but which also in the name of this project eliminates vast numbers of its own people, needs a “social-racism.”

In the context of Foucault's final lecture of 1976 then, we can define state racism as whatever “justifies the death-function in the economy of biopower by appealing to the principle that the death of others makes one biologically stronger insofar as one is a member of a race or population.” The word ‘biological' in this definition is (I think) used rather loosely, such that there is no implication that the discourse of the strength of the population needs to be couched in explicitly biological terms to be biologically racist — there simply needs to be an understanding of the population as something that is threatened by internal and external agents, and which can grow stronger by the elimination of those threats. This definition does not describe an ideological use of racism, but a state racism which is implicit in biopolitical societies.

The use of the particular kinds of racist discourse which we understand by the word ‘racism' today is, however, contingent to particular kinds of state racism. Racism has a longer history, and one which never entirely coincides with state racism even during its heyday. While what is conventionally understood to be ‘racism' in the contemporary socio-political context undoubtedly still functions at the level of biopolitical exclusions and vili. cation, it is not the same thing: the biopolitical exclusion of criminals needs only the idea that they are harmful to society, not that they are racially dangerous at a genetic level. Hence, if, as Etienne Balibar has suggested, we have seen a transition from biological racism to a ‘neo-racism' in which culture has replaced ethnicity as the “stigma of otherness,” this new racism still plays the same functional role of excluding its victims from society. Given the current connotation of the word ‘racist', however, how it has been harnessed to a pejorative use directed at certain beliefs which became popular in association with European colonialism and ultimately with Nazism, its use in the phrase ‘state racism' serves to distract from the import of Foucault's analysis.

Foucault's understanding of ‘race' is grounded in centuries of discourse where race had little to do with physical appearance. Race has never been a concept which has been simply about physical appearance. Foucault alludes to how in the Middle Ages the predominant form of racism was a religious racism in which European Christians saw Muslims as the racial other.25 The words ‘nation' and ‘race' were once used interchangeably, and it is in this broad sense of ‘race' that the principle of division between the population/nation/race and its enemies is called ‘state racism'.

The rest of the article here, as pdf.

Apologies for any formatting changes from the orig.