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What we missed when we talked about COVID-19 and Foucauldian biopolitics

Carmen van Alebeek

We haven’t been able to avoid it during the past years: biopolitics. Mandatory face masks, vaccinations, lockdowns: in one way or another, we have all been constrained by political decisions designed to protect populations against a new virus. Made popular, but not coined, by poststructuralist philosopher Michel Foucault, the concept of biopolitics means exactly that: political power over a population as a singular entity made up of biological bodies. But what can we learn from Foucault regarding our fight against COVID-19?

Since the early stages of the pandemic, philosophers and social scientists, like sociologist Bruno Latour and critical theorist Joshua Clover, have pondered on the question what Michel Foucault might have had to say about so-called covid politics if he were still alive. Many of these debaters point to the directly observable covid measures, claiming that we are witnessing the epitome of Foucauldian biopolitics.What these authors are missing, however, is that a great deal of Foucault’s analysis of modern power practices concentrates on what happens beneath the surface of everyday social interactions. So, for a more satisfactory answer to the question what we can learn from Foucault’s writings and lectures, we need to delve deeper into his philosophy.

The power over bodies

Readers who are familiar with Foucault’s work will know that his notion of biopolitics is part of a broader framework: biopower. Simply put, biopower encompasses all practices of power that make life possible and avert death to their best abilities. Or, in Foucault’s own terms, biopower includes all instances of power that are attuned to the slogan ’Make live and let die’. Essentially, biopower is the power over human bodies, used to produce the healthy and competent citizens that modern state institutions, such as capitalism, require to function.

On the level of individual lives, biopower works through the disciplining of bodies. This is what Foucault calls an anatomopolitics of the human body and comes down to the power of knowledge and the norms that the latter constitutes. For instance, we are taught that in order to be considered a valuable member of society, we need to make sure that we are healthy. What it means to be healthy, however, can only be determined by medical experts with the right knowledge.

Biopolitics, on the other hand, is the regulation of the entire population as a biological body. Here, statistics about the state of public health, for example, enable political actors to do what needs to be done to control the health of the population as a whole. While these two components of biopower are located on different levels of society, they are closely related. For biopolitical power practices to be both efficient and effective, individual bodies should be disciplined and subjugated to norms. Consequently, if we, in our analysis of Covid politics, fail to shift our focus away from biopolitical government interventions aiming to control the population, we miss the Foucauldian message.

Shaped behavior

To make this immensely theoretical account more tangible, let’s turn to an example. We can look at Covid measures and the protest they received to point out the Foucauldian elements of the pandemic. But isn't it far more interesting and fruitful to ask ourselves this question: Why do so many people obey the restrictions without resistance? As a result of socialization processes, we adhere to health norms by listening to medical professionals. In Foucauldian words, we have been docile bodies for the biggest part of our lives. By overlooking the disciplinary power of norms that makes us wear masks and keep our distance to each other, we fall into the trap that Foucault warned us about: modern biopower is not just physical biopolitical restrictions imposed by the government, it is mostly how our automatic behaviors regarding health and death are shaped.

In his lecture series Society Must Be Defended, Foucault talks about how political powers are able to put the lives of their citizens at risk in times of modern power, where killing has become a fundamentally illegitimate act. He argues that the racist nature of biopower enables political powers to split up the population into different ‘races’, which are placed in a hierarchy of biological lives. At the top of this hierarchy are the lives of the healthy and wealthy majority, which are protected at all times. At the bottom, we find the lives of the least fortunate. These people struggle with low income and education, poor health, and other matters of concern that make them least worthy of protection in the eyes of political powers. Although it is important to note here that Foucault understood racism not necessarily as discrimination based on race or ethnicity, in practice this hierarchy is often one of race/ethnicity.

Beneath the surface

This sounds scary, and it is. Many studies have pointed out how Covid politics and the pandemic itself have reinforced existing socio-economic inequalities. For example, we only need to look at how people with lower paid jobs were expected to continue their work activities while infection rates and deaths peaked, forced to risk their lives in order to make sure their better-off fellow citizens could work at home safely. Similar inequalities can be observed in terms of vaccination rates: government restrictions are being lifted while many lower-class citizens are not yet vaccinated due to structural obstacles, such as language barriers, lack of transportation or lack of available child care. These inequities exist, but are rarely talked about in the public debate, where discussions on Covid measures and the fundamental freedoms of the willingly unvaccinated prevail.

These were only two examples of what we can learn from Foucault’s writings and lectures on biopolitics and biopower, and there is much more to be said. Still, the key message is the following. By focusing solely on visible manifestations of biopolitical population control, we miss the Foucauldian message: power is not so much what happens right before our eyes, but rather how we are conditioned to behave and what we take for granted. Biopolitics is but the tip of the iceberg of all active practices of biopower during the pandemic. Foucault can help us look beneath the surface of our daily experiences and recognize dangerous inequalities that are often kept out of the public debate.