Biopower, as described by Foucault, is the ability of the government to control its population through ‘an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies.’” (Wikipedia, “Biopower”) These techniques can be as mundane as the ability of the government to use streetlights to control when and where a car should stop, but can also extend to the government’s claimed right to use capital punishment. Furthermore, using this subjugation, Anne Stohler writes, “so many regimes have been able to wage so many wars,” claiming, “at stake is the biological existence of a population.” (Stohler 81) Although this can be done in ways as obvious as Hitler’s choice to exterminate unwanted ethnic groups, the more subtle forms of biopower are often claimed to be the most destructive. For example, through the American government’s claim to protect the lives of its citizens in whatever way possible, they reserve the right to end that protection—that is, to effectively kill its citizens—giving itself power over life.
There are many ways to rebel against the state’s biopower, and each can be effective depending on the circumstances one finds oneself in. The key difference between each form, however, is whether or not the rebel is working inside of the system of control or outside of it. Of course, differing views exist on the validity and potential of such approaches. Andrew Sullivan writes, in support of working within the system, “it is necessary to conform to certain disciplines in order to reform them, necessary to speak a certain language before it can say something different.” (Sullivan 88). On the other hand, Jon Simons believes, “attempts to establish alternative institutions such as free universities or people's courts are doomed to fail as they are soon reabsorbed by the dominant structure.” In reality, either of the two alternatives could conceivably work, but their successfulness depends largely on the type of institution they are fighting.
Yet, fighting against the state’s control over life may not be the ideal choice in all situations. As the streetlight example proves, sometimes the state’s ability to keep the people safe outweighs the fact that the state is controlling someone’s choices. The prison system, though intruding on the personal lives of its prisoners, is a necessary evil that protects the rest of society from people who could, if left to their own decisions, very conceivably cause great amounts of harm. Even the “most destructive” form of biopower—that is, a government’s claim to protect life—can be essential to the well being of its citizens. Of course, no one wants to defend the state’s right to commit genocide, murdering ethnic groups simply for the sake of murdering them. However, the state’s ability to keep control over some aspects of its subjects’ lives is necessary to prevent others from taking advantage of the power vacuum. Though abuse of biopower is definitely to be avoided, some degree of control is necessary for political existence.
They Live, although a trite attempt to attack capitalism through the vision of its writer and director, John Carpenter, is a telling example of the way the upper classes, through the government and media, can control the lives of the lower classes. The movie follows an unnamed hero through his attempts to bring down a society that has been built up, through subliminal messages and coercive television programming, by an alien race seeking to control the earth and drain it of its resources. Throughout the movie, the media is shown as an outlet that the aliens use to dominate and subvert the people, whether through magazines, newscasts, or billboards. Although Nada is surprised and betrayed by the people he thought were on his side, he eventually makes it to the broadcasting station that has been distributing the aliens’ disruptive mind waves, and is able to destroy its satellite dish, revealing the aliens to the world that they had been trying to corrupt.
John Carpenter set They Live in a society that is much like today’s. However, the aliens who have come to claim the earth’s resources run all society’s major forces. For example, as one of the drifters in the movie says, “there ain’t no countries anymore… They own everything—the whole planet!” (They Live Dialogue) Governments are run not by the will of the people, but by the will of the invaders. Similarly, the aliens and their human supporters have overrun the media, sending messages to the people of earth that they must “conform” and have “no independent thought,” which is implied to be equivalent to submitting to the capitalist nature of society. (They Live Summary) The appeal of wealth and a good position in society has allowed the aliens to gain a substantial human following, and has subsequently divided earth’s population into two classes. Those who support the invasion and have received the monetary benefits of submission have become the upper class, which is primarily filled with politicians and high-ranking business owners, and those who are being forcibly submitted to the aliens’ will make up the poor lower class.
Most of what can be attributed to biopower today can be more easily seen in They Live’s version of society. For example, although slightly exaggerated in Carpenter’s movie, the police’s ability to arrest and control those it considers subversive to the aliens is comparable to the government’s ability to confine those it considers “dangerous” to “free speech zones” that have been designed to keep political opposition away from where it can be seen. In both cases, the police claims to be acting in the interests of the people of the state, but then uses that power of protection to control the lives of the opposition. Perhaps unknowingly, Carpenter is providing an example of the first kind of opposition to biopower—working outside of the system. As Lafrance notices, “Nada’s… faith in the system begins to change when the squatter’s camp the men are staying at is suddenly bulldozed one night.” (Lafrance, “Capitalists From Outer Space!”) It is only Nada’s brute force and determination to combat the aliens, though fatal, is able to combat the power of the aliens to suppress the people. Had Nada chosen to remain complacent, earning his “hard day’s work,” the aliens’ power would never have been overturned.
1984, in a similar vein, shows the fruitlessness of trying to work against an oppressive system from the inside out. George Orwell’s dystopian novel follows Winston, a member of the middle class, known in the world of Oceania as the Outer Party, as he rebels against the government that has been set up to monitor his every move. He meets Julia, a girl who he has an affair with, but is eventually caught and, through various forms of torture, forced to confess and give in to the wishes of the government. The novel ends with the government’s ultimate victory over Winston’s life—they have decimated his independent thought and gotten him to admit that “2+2=5,” if and when the government desires it to be so.
The government in 1984 is the ultimate example of the biopolitical state. Able to control every aspect of its citizens’ lives, the government doesn’t even have any qualms about torturing dissenters until they’re forced to agree with government philosophy. Using several different forms of organization, the government is able to handle its affairs effectively. In Orwell’s dystopia, there are three distinct classes- the Inner and Outer Parties, which make up the government, and the Proles, who make up the huge lower class. The law is nonexistent, but only because it changes with whatever the government wants it to be on any given day. The economy is restricted, and the people are given their needs in the form of a ration. Through the use of various surveillance tools, the government could keep track of each of its citizens day in and day out. For example, there “[is] no way of shutting off” the telescreens that are placed in every room of the Inner Party’s apartments. The government even is attempting to limit speech to the point where no subversive thoughts are even possible. As Syme, a member of the Inner Party, says, “the destruction of words” will “narrow the range of thought,” making thoughtcrime “literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.” All of this, in turn, is justified by the “protection” that the government is providing the people in fighting the war against the two enemy states, a war that is, in reality, contrived and never-ending.
Unlike They Live, Orwell’s society in 1984 is a more extreme version of an authoritarian state in which the government controls everything. At this point, the apocalyptic predictions of many philosophers come true. The torture that the government of Oceania can and does use is the ultimate impact of biopolitical control. The government can control its citizens’ every move, and can even go as far as control their thoughts, an extension of the impact that even the most radical of philosophers has yet to suggest. The government’s power is so entrenched that nothing can loosen its hold. Unwittingly, Orwell shows the true problems with trying to reform from the inside of an institution—try as hard as he might, Winston is unable to overcome the power of the government as one of its own member. As Winston so succinctly states, “if there is hope, it lies in the proles,” outside of the confines of the government. However, in Orwell’s world, it is too late. The government’s control has extended far enough to control the lives of even the lowest class, and there is truly no alternative to the biopolitics.
Nonetheless, Orwell’s dystopia is an extremely drastic vision of what could be governmental abuse. In reality, the government’s ability to regulate life is actually very beneficial, as Falling Down proves. Falling Down is an emotionally challenging movie, (WRITTEN/DIRECTED BY), following the plight of a man known as D-FENS as he struggles to make it back home for his daughter’s birthday party. As the movie progresses, it is made painfully obvious that D-FENS is slightly manic, and prefers to see himself as a rather violent vigilante. At various points on his trips he goes into violent crusades against what he sees as the injustices of his society. For example, he vandalizes a convenience store, claiming that its prices are too high; this violence escalates to the point where he stands idle as an elderly man has a heart attack, allowing him to die simply because the elderly man had hit a golf ball in D-FENS’s direction. As D-FENS nears his destination, a cop known as Prendergast begins to catch up to him, and the movie ends in a confrontation that leaves D-FENS dead, Prendergast a hero, and D-FENS’s daughter a life-insurance policy richer.
Unlike They Live and 1984, society in Falling Down is exactly as it can be found today. From the point of view of D-FENS, of course, this society is more than slightly abusive. For example, he claims that a construction site is just fixing the street “to justify [its] budgets.” (Falling Down Dialogue Quotes) However, realistically, the government is the same bureaucratic entity that it has been in the last decades, and the economy, though possibly hit by a bit of inflation, is the same as it has always been. D-FENS is slightly annoyed over the idea that a plastic surgeon has a higher standard of living than a “protector” of the country, but the social classes are those of the present. Society as a whole is exactly as it can be found today.
This, however, sets the scene for an interesting view on the government’s biopolitics. D-FENS takes it as his personal mission to fight everything that is wrong with the government, in the traditional view of many Foucaultian philosophers. However, as Prendergast proves, the government isn’t in as dire straits as D-FENS would like to claim. In fact, D-FENS’s attempts to reform society from the outside prove much more destructive than constructive—by the end of the movie, he has contributed to the death of two individuals and has injured at least three. When viewed with a realistic paradigm, the government in Falling Down may have even contributed to providing the people of Southern California with a safer environment by ridding them of a potentially dangerous killer. The government’s biopower, at least in this case, proved to be better than philosophers’ claims.
Biopower, and the resulting biopolitics, can have some very severe implications. As 1984 shows, a government with the power to control life to the extent of Oceania’s power is an extremely dangerous thing. However, there currently is no government with power to that extent; They Live’s presentation of the government’s power, though comical, is linked to aliens, the media, and mind control more than an institution’s actual ability to control life. Therefore, in the state that current government’s are in, philosophers’ calls for reform and resistance are simply unwarranted. Falling Down shows what the effects of an unwarranted rebellion are, and what the power of the government truly is. IN THE END, although future expansion of biopower may be cause to raise questions, the current system is fine as it is, and may even be a necessary evil, used to stop what could potentially be an even worse fate for the people within a state’s borders.
And an essay that I thought I would hate but that I ended up liking a lot. Three of 12.
Compare the economic roles of the state under seventeeth century mercantilism and twentieth century communism. Illustrate your answer with reference to the economic system of France during Louis XIV's reign under Colbert and of the Soviet Union under Stalin.
Throughout history, many different economic policies have developed and prospered, some more effectively than others. Many of these bear a striking resemblence to one another, and often they prove the theory that history repeats itself. Mercantilism and communism are two examples of this similarity in economic policies. Although differing slightly in terms of overall goals for their prospective countries, both policies held to the idea that a country's government should remain thoroughly involved in its economic growth. Although the means in which this was achieved often differed, the overall similarities between the two make a compelling case for the usefulness of recycling economic policies.
Under mercantilism, the underlying goal was centralization of the economy. Perhaps the most effective monarch to follow this policy was Louis XIV, France's sun king. Louis, through his minister of finance, Colbert, set out on this policy in many different ways. In his dealing with colonies, for example, Colbert made sure that they were simply supporting the cause of the mother country. He also attempted to create national monopolies on many industries, believing that in this way, the only expense taken by the country was the price of raw goods. Through the use of intendants and the corvee, or labor tax, Louis attempted to boost the internal economy of the country by reducing unemployment and bringing extra money in to the government. Louis pushed the government to take a large amount of control over his empire's economic duties, making sure that he was able to acquire the resources and power, thought to be limited, before other countries.
Similarly, under Stalin, the Soviet Union also took on a policy that involved the government heavily. One of the most drastic impacts of the communist policies was the deaprture from the NEP, Lenin's New Economic Policy, to the rapid industrialization and 5-year government sponsored plans that were meant to bring the Soviet Union to a level of industrialization comparable to the that of the great powers. This also led to the complete collectivization of agriculture from the kulaks, which Stalin believed was necessary to provide the people of the cities with enough food. Finally, all of these policies were put in place in order to reach Stalin's ultimate goal -- not the spread of communism, but first the stabilization of the Soviet Union.
Although there were differences in the ultimate goals of mercantilism and communism -- for example, the collectivization and equal spread of wealth as opposed to its accumulation udner the upper clases -- the government's role in each was strikingly similar. Both France under Colbert and the Soviet Union under Stalin attempted to nationalize their industries to support the sate. Just as France used intendants to keep track of its local citizens, Stalin sent out groups to ensure proper collectivization of farms. Although each different with regards to colonies, both agreed that other countries had to first be competed against by securing the economy of the mother country. Finally, each state believed this could only be done through massive state intervention.
Finally, both policies also shared one other thing in common -- failure. After Louis XIV and Colbert, France was unable to keep its empire alive, and was eventually forced apart by the actions of the middle class. The Soviet Union also faced a similar fate; after Stalin, future leaders of the Soviet Union were unable to keep the same hard-line state control of the economy. After it all, policies that require such extreme amounts of state intervention also require extremely potent leaders. If the leaders are unable to keep a grasp on the country, the economic policies will inevitable fail. Under both communism and mercantilism, the government was unable to keep the firm grasp on control it had always held, and in both cases, it led to an extreme downwall.
AND I'm getting quicker at my typing, which makes me happy. This is all good practice. :)