Geopolitics and Biopolitics
2 February 2012
Geopolitics has been a focus of this forum since its inception, but it was always my intention to supplement a purely geopolitical approach with an attempt to take account of the role of ideas in history — past, present, and future. I have even attempted a precisification of some of the concepts of geopolitics in a few posts on theoretical geopolitics. Thus while I cannot call myself an unqualified geopolitical thinker, I certainly have geopolitical sympathies. If you like, you could call me a fellow traveler of those who practice geopolitics sensu stricto.
It would be easy to find weaknesses in the geopolitical perspective, and many are the critics who have dismissed geopolitics as geographical determinism (that is, when it is not otherwise being roundly condemned as a pseudo-science). In fact, geopolitics should be understood in parallel to any form of abstract thinking: it brings a certain clarity of focus to a tightly restricted domain of concerns, but this focus and clarity is purchased at the cost of excluding certain considerations. The same is true of mathematics or logic or theoretical physics. Every abstract theory incorporates ellipses directly derivative of its abstractions; this being said, we usually get farther with our abstractions than without them. And I have argued many times that any theoretical grounding for one’s thought is probably better than no theoretical grounding at all. Geopolitics is simply one such theoretical grounding for thought.
There are many schools of geopolitics. Karl Haushofer perhaps represents the origin of explicitly thinking in geopolitical terms (there are other earlier geopolitical thinkers I will mention below), but Haushofer’s geopolitics is grounded in Germany’s terrestrial perspective as a land power of Eurasia, and Haushofer’s theories revolved around the control of the Eurasian continent. Not usually called a geopolitician, but standing in diametrical opposition to Haushofer is Alfred Thayer Mahan, whose book The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660-1783 was disproportionately influential during the period when the great powers of Europe were engaged in an arms race based on dreadnaught class battleships, which eerily foreshadowed the nuclear arms race of the Cold War. As Haushofer was the the terrestrial realm, Mahan was to the world’s oceans.
Perhaps the preeminent practitioner of geopolitics today is George Friedman, founder of Strategic Forecasting (keep in mind that I am talking about people who are real thinkers, and not celebrity politicians such as get named to Foreign Policy’s list of Top 100 Global Thinkers). I have referenced Freidman’s work many times in this forum, so my readers should be well familiar with him. There are some echoes of Alfred Thayer Mahan that occasionally surface in Friedman’s work, but Friedman’s focus upon and dedication to the geopolitical perspective — almost to the exclusion of all else — is a remarkable exercise in coherent and consistent strategic analysis. Thomas P. M. Barnett is another geostrategic thinker whom I have referenced, but he is less tightly focused on geography than Friedman.
There is something else that unites these strategic thinkers other than their dedication to a geopolitical perspective. At their best, all of these strategists stand above politics. William James once called philosophy an unusually stubborn attempt to think clearly (my personal favorite among the many definitions of the discipline). By the same token we could call strategy an unusually stubborn attempt to think clearly about politics, and, in the same vein, I recently wrote on Twitter that The one unforgivable sin in strategy is to allow objectivity to become compromised by ideology. Everyone who thinks in strategic terms knows this — if they have not formulated it explicitly, they know it in their gut.
However. Indeed, however. There is a kind of political unity to the geopolitical school of thought that transcends geography. It is not an ideological politics, but rather a scholarly politics, if there is such a thing. One can guess what books geopolitical strategists read, and they probably read pretty much the same books (mainstream works of political science) as they probably look at the same maps. Just as importantly, they probably also have in common the books that they do not read. One suspects that they read mainstream works of scholarship, and that if they have taken the trouble to delve into alternative viewpoints, they probably haven’t understood very well what they were reading. It would be difficult to imagine, for example, Samuel P. Huntington, George Friedman, or Thomas P. M. Barnett reading Heidegger, Foucault, Delueze, or Derrida. (Few can be expected to master multiple domains of knowledge, especially when those domains involve incommensurable features.)
What do I mean by “alternative” viewpoints? There is a term of art if ever there was one. I am being a bit elliptical about this because I am trying to avoid political stereotypes, especially a distinction between left and right, since the left/right distinction is as antipathetic to geopolitical strategists as it is to their unsung alternatives. The closest we can come to identifying the distinction without falling back on political cliches is to invoke the distinction between analytical philosophy (which I sometimes call “Anglo-American analytical philosophy”) and continental philosophy. It is important to note that, while the distinction has its origins in geography, it is no longer a geographical distinction. There are analytical philosophers on the European continent, and there are continental philosophers aplenty in the US, Canada, and the UK.
Sometimes the analytical/continental distinction is treated as a mere accident of history, and that we group certain thinkers together because they went to the same schools or spoke the same language. Others treat the distinction as essential, and in making the distinction recognize an essential core of presuppositions shared on both sides of the divide. Of course, the distinction is a little of both — part accident of history, part essential to the thought. This distinction being made, then, I can say that geopolitical strategists stand in relation to their unsung alternatives as analytical philosophy is to continental philosophy.
Now, when I write that the alternatives to mainstream geopolitical thought are “unsung,” I only mean this in so far as strategy extends, because some of the thinkers I will mention are very well known, though not usually thought of as intellectual rivals to the tradition of geopolitics. Chief among those who offer a counter-veiling vision to that a geopolitics is Foucault, and what Foucault offers as an alternative is biopolitics (sometimes called bio-power). Foucault originated and elaborated biopolitics, though it appears as a mode of analysis and a way of understanding, never as a political doctrine or an ideology. In this, biopolitics is parallel to geopolitics, which is understood by its practitioners to be non-ideological.
The fons et orgio of biopolitics (and perhaps, for the moment, also the locus classicus) is “Right of Death and Power over Life,” which appeared as Part Five of Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction. Here Foucault wrote:
“…starting in the seventeenth century, this power over life evolved in two basic forms; these forms were not antithetical, however; they constituted rather two poles of development linked together by a whole intermediary cluster of relations. One of these poles-the first to be formed, it seems–centered on the body as a machine: its disciplining, the optimization of its capabilities, the extortion of its forces, the parallel increase of its usefulness and its docility, its integration into systems of efficient and economic controls, all this was ensured by the procedures of power that characterized the disciplines: an anatomo-politics of the human body. The second, formed somewhat later, focused on the species body, the body imbued with the mechanics of life and serving as the basis of the biological processes: propagation, births and mortality, the level of health, life expectancy and longevity, with all the conditions that can cause these to vary. Their supervision was effected through an entire series of interventions and regulatory controls: a biopolitics of the population. The disciplines of the body and the regulations of the population constituted the two poles around which the organization of power over life was deployed.”
Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction, Part Five, “Right of Death and Power over Life,” Vintage, 1980, p. 139
It was actually a Swede, Johan Rudolf Kjellén, who coined the term “geopolitics.” Kjellén is not so well known as Friedrich Ratzel, Mahan, or Haushofer, but he did first formulate some of the seminal ideas of geopolitics, so much so that we might say that Kjellén stands in relation to geopolitics as Foucault stands in relation to biopolitics. Kjellén was also instrumental in formulating the organic conception of the state, which we will consider below.
There is something fundamental about geopolitics in so far as its theses are founded on the brute facts of the geography of the world (and these brute facts are also the source of the abstractions of geopolitical thought). There is also something fundamental about biopolitics, with its theses founded on the intimately familiar facts of life itself (which, taken out of geographical and historical context also involves abstraction). Foundationalist thought (and strategy is foundationalist thought in politics) may or may not be politically radical, but it is usually theoretically radical (in the sense that I attempted to formulate in Radical Rigor), and it is in this theoretical sense that both geopolitics and biopolitics are radical.
Radicalism (like abstraction) has its limits, and the radicalism of geopolitics as well as that of biopolitics is limited by the abstractions employed in the formulation of each discipline. How so? Let me try to explain. Geopolitics is, in large part (although not in its entirety), apologetics for the nation-state and the international order based upon the nation-state system. I have repeatedly emphasized in many contexts that, while the nation-state is putatively defined in terms of nationalism — implying a kind of ethno-socio-cultural unity) in actual fact the nation-state is geographically defined, and more particularly it is defined in terms of the territorial principle in law, with Weber’s legal monopoly on violence holding (ideally, though not always in fact) within the territorial boundaries of a given nation-state.
Here is how George Friedman has recently characterized the nation-state:
“A nation state… rests on two assumptions. The first is that the nation represents a uniquely legitimate community whose members share a range of interests and values. The second is that the state arises in some way from the popular will and that only that popular will has the right to determine the state’s actions. There is no question that for Europe, the principle of national self-determination is a fundamental moral value. There is no question that Greece is a nation and that its government, according to this principle, is representative of and responsible to the Greek people.”
George Friedman, Germany’s Role in Europe and the European Debt Crisis, January 31, 2012
Formulations in terms of a “uniquely legitimate community” and popular sovereignty leave a lot to be desired, but Friedman is not here writing a theoretical treatise; he is only setting the stage for a geopolitical analysis in which the nation-state is central. There are shades here of the organic theory of the state, and I say this not to try to cast aspersions on Friedman’s analysis (because of the unsavory use to which the organic theory of the state has been put), but only to bring out important implicit features in the nation-state system. Geopolitics as apologetics for the nation-state system marks the limit of the radicalism of geopolitics, and its acceptance of conventional, mainstream political thought such as you would encounter in any political science curriculum.
There are few if any explicit ideological defenses of the nation-state system. The nation-state system — its value and its validity — is an assumption, almost to the point of the very inability even to think of any alternative to this central assumption (other than well-known historical examples no longer at issue today, such as the city-state or the empire). For the theoretician who thinks within the assumptions of the nation-state system, alternatives are literally unthinkable.
Biopolitics operates with a different set of assumptions. Biopolitics has assumptions, but it does not share these assumptions (at least, not all of them) with geopolitics, and for biopolitics different scenarios are literally unthinkable because different theoretical foundations render different states of affairs incoherent. Whatever biopolitics is — and we cannot yet say in any detail what it is — it is not apologetics for the nation-state system.
While we cannot say much about biopolitics, we can say something about biopolitics, and one of the most interesting things that we can say is that, like geopolitics, it has certain debts to the organic theory of the state. Because biopolitics comes out of a loosely defined tradition that is sympathetic to collectivism, it tolerates the idea of the state as a whole that is greater than its parts, and in so far as the parts are individuals citizens of the state, these parts are subordinated to the whole. (While Foucault himself was scrupulous in maintaining his distance from the communists — unlike Sartre and, to a lesser degree, Merleau-Ponty, who allowed themselves to become apologists for Stalinism — others who have taken up the idea of biopolitics and bio-power have not been so scrupulous.) It could even be argued that bio-regionalism is an organic theory of the state purged of nationalist ideology.
We cannot say that the organic theory of the state is a common “core” to both geopolitics and biopolitics, but it is something in common, although the way in which the idea of state organicism is implemented is very different in these two diverse traditions of thought. Geopolitics would tolerate (or endorse) different compromises to individual freedom of action than biopolitics would tolerate (or endorse). The point is that there is a shared tolerance for the abridgement of liberty, though where that tolerance falls is different in each case.
The formulation of biopolitics as an explicit tradition of thought and analysis is a strategic trend of the first importance. It is, in fact, an event in metaphysical history — not so far reaching as the Copernican Revolution, but easily as far reaching as the idea and implementation of the nation-state system itself. While there is as yet no clear sign that those loosely unified protesters who feel both thwarted and disenfranchised by the contemporary institutions of the nation-state (which comprises all conventional and mainstream political activity) recognize in biopolitics a theoretical articulation of views that they didn’t even know that they held (until their “consciousness raising”), this joining of idea of implementation may yet come about.
The authentic sign of a grass roots movement (and perhaps also of a mass movement) is when the practice and theory emerge independently and only later recognize each other as both emerging from some more fundamental and shared impulse, one as the intellectual justification of a practice or set of practices, and the other as the implementation of one and the same existential orientation. This has not yet occurred with biopolitics, but it could occur, and, I would argue, it is likely to occur, because the kind of person who enters into street protests is likely to be eventually introduced to the kind of scholarship that is loosely affiliated with biopolitics, and not likely to be introduced to some other, alternative tradition.
We do not yet know if biopolitics has an historical destiny commensurate with that of geopolitics — we do not yet know if this is an idea that has legs — but we do know that it is loosely related to a perennial tradition of thought. The question then becomes whether biopolitics is a passing and evanescent expression of a perennial human point of intellectual reference, or if it is, in the contrary, the next transformative event that will take this perennial attitude in a new direction, and possibly also to new heights, extending the perennial tradition in new and unexpected ways.
It is entirely possible that one of the great ideological struggles of the coming century (and perhaps also the coming centuries) will be between geopolitics and biopolitics — or, rather, between the representatives of geopolitics and the representatives of biopolitics. In this case, biopolitics would come to represent what Fukuyama called, “a systematic idea of political and social justice” that differs from that of liberal democracy. It could be argued that we are already beginning to see the early signs of this struggle, as peoples increasingly find themselves in conflict with the nation-state the putatively represents their interests, and as a people they struggle against the nation-state.
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