Addendum on Geopolitics and Biopolitics

4 February 2012


In my last post, Geopolitics and Biopolitics, I drew an explicit contrast between the well-established tradition of geopolitical thought, which may be considered a part of the mainstream of political science (unless one dismisses it as a pseudo-science, as some do), and the nascent, inchoate tradition of biopolitical thought, largely due to Foucault, but potentially representing an alternative to mainstream political science. While geopolitics and biopolitics are not ideologies per se, both incorporate ideological presuppositions. I identified the ideological presupposition of geopolitics as the contemporary nation-state system. The emergent tradition of biopolitics is not yet sufficiently defined for me to give such an easily accessible account of its ideological presuppositions, though I would (with a certain degree of hesitation) note that it is loosely collectivist, populist, and decentralized.

It could be said that I was unduly negative in my characterization of both geopolitics and biopolitics, since I attempted to show how both incorporate assumptions that draw from the organic theory of the state, and how both traditions would tolerate certain circumscriptions of liberties in the name of the organic state that is more than the sum of its parts. The most well-known and notorious expression of this idea is the reason of state (Staatsräson, raison d’état), which one usually thinks of in connection with orthodox political science in extremis, but such extraordinary claims for state power are by no means limited to extreme, exceptional, or unusual circumstances. It is the very pervasiveness of state power that inspires its critics to position themselves as advocating decentralized resistance that constitutes a counter-power to state power.

It is important to point out my characterization of the oppressive and restrictive aspects of both geopolitical and biopolitical presuppositions, since one of the most distinctive things about both traditions is that both geopolitics and biopolitics position themselves as being at the vanguard of an emancipatory struggle that promises self-determination both to peoples and to individuals. Geopolitics understands the emancipation of peoples and individuals to occur in a context of legally defined rights. Biopolitics understands the emancipation of peoples and individuals to consist in popular expressions of dissent and civil disobedience — i.e., in the defiance of the legally defined parameters of civil society.

Francis Fukuyama, whom I have referenced many times in recent posts, and who is as good a representative as any of contemporary orthodox political science, has expressed the emancipatory dimension of mainstream thought in his recent Foreign Policy essay, The Drive for Dignity, in which he wrote:

“Authoritarian regimes have many failings. Like those in the Arab world now under siege, they can be corrupt, manipulative, and economically stagnant. All of these are causes for popular complaint. But their greatest weakness is moral: They do not recognize the basic dignity of their citizens and therefore can and do treat ordinary people with at best indifference and at worst with contempt.”

The liberal democratic nation-state (for how can the institutions of liberal democracy be administered but for their embodiment in a nation-state?) is here explicitly contrasted to authoritarian regimes that violate the rights of their citizens with impunity. Despite the efforts that representatives of orthodox political science make to show that the liberal democratic consensus of the contemporary nation-state is an emancipatory force in the life of the people, there are nevertheless a great many people who feel profoundly alienated, disenfranchised, and indeed even thwarted by the institutions of the nation-state. Many people in non-authoritarian nation-states feel that they are treated with indifference or contempt, and that this violation of their dignity follows from the same bureaucratic state structures that are put in place to ensure that legally defined rights are respected.

The emergent alternative tradition of biopolitics also offers emancipatory hope to non-privileged citizens of mass society, appealing to essentially the same sense of dignity by examining in meticulous detail the subtle way that regimes of governmentality exercise control over citizens, and in so doing implicitly suggesting an alternative ideal of a life not regimented according to the elaborate regimes of biopower. Technologies of life are here seen to be essentially authoritarian even when (if not especially when) emancipatory claims are made on their behalf. The same structures of legal rights that mainstream political science sees as protecting the individual are recast in a sinister light as confining the individual to a highly specified role. Thus defiance of a political regime through protest and civil disobedience becomes a demonstration of personal (and perhaps also communal) self-assertion and dignity.

I suggested in Geopolitics and Biopolitics that one of the defining ideological struggles of the future could be that between the representatives of geopolitics and the representatives of biopolitics. If this should develop into a definitive struggle, it will be a struggle to assert which tradition stands in the vanguard of popular emancipation. Each will make claims (usually implicit) that its tradition is uniquely concerned to secure the dignity of the individual as against the depredations of the other tradition. In the one case, these depredations will be those of the misguided state against its people; in the other case, these depredations will be those of an undisciplined mob against the state which guarantees rights for all. Both models of emancipation and dignity, then, can be assimilated to a conception of legal rights, but this formulation doesn’t really do justice to the difference between the two. In fact, to formulate the difference in terms of rights is the formulate an emergent tradition in the language of an established tradition, and therefore to misrepresent everything that is novel and innovative in the emerging paradigm.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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2 Responses to “Addendum on Geopolitics and Biopolitics”

  1. Three cheers for Geopolitics.

    I have often referred here to my concerns over the Nietzschean “Last Man” and to be blunt, I think that biopolitics would be the most inviting path for such beings to fully assert themselves.

    Over at my own blog I have stated,

    “I have argued that tradition is the brake we apply so we can look both ways before we cross the street. It should not stop all movement, much less should it be reactionary and drive us backward to an imagined utopia of days gone by. Yet, it SHOULD stop us from hurtling headlong into the future with no real cognition of what consequences may be confronting us.”

    A couple of years ago I also said (and here I partially betray my politics),

    “A conservative must defend what has been great, because to defend what “may be great” is a leap of faith more difficult than believing in God and far more likely to sow seeds of bitterness when the inevitable disappointment saps that once youthful vigor. At that point, a rootless, existential ambiguity consumes those once well meaning hopes.

    Tradition is posterity and the cumulative total of history’s lessons. Losing tradition will kill civilization.”

    Borrowing your phrase of an “undisciplined mob,” I fear that many that wish to assert their “dignity” are really asserting their animalistic and baser desires. This could destroy civilization and leave us with nothing to measure greatness by.

    If the geopolitical paradigm of the “nation-state” (or even a form of empire as existed prior to the Westphalian model) can defend against the dreadful leveling affects of mass culture, then it should be embraced.

    At the very least, we must look both ways before crossing the street and arriving on the doorstep of a new construct for organizing man’s worldly existence. Such a new construct may well not be better than that with which we are more fully acquainted.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Mr. Lawson,

      Your comments broach several very interesting issues that I will be thinking about. I am fascinated by your suggestion that biopolitics might be a pathway for the Nietzschean superman (or “overman”) to assert himself or herself. I never would have thought of this, but I will not deny the possibility tout court. But in so far as biopolitical thought tends to be loosely associated with collectivist sentiments, and collectivist sentiments are viscerally opposed to the self-assertion of the exceptional individual, it seems unlikely to me. On the other hand, I know from historical examples that social movements often evolve into the antithesis of their initial orientation, and that is why I will not say that it is impossible.

      I have often mused about what kind of civilization would emerge from a social milieu in which no tradition put the “brakes” on progress and innovation. I think that all cultures and civilizations have involved self-limiting mechanisms, and that these have often been counter-productive to human happiness and well being. Furthermore, I submit to you that both geopolitics and biopolitics are conservative — not in the current partisan sense of that term, but in the sense of involving self-limiting mechanisms as well as the sense that you use of defending “what has been great.” The difference between the two is simply identifying that which has been great in the past.

      Allow me to give a particular example, so that I am not understood merely in abstract terms. Jane Jacob’s seminal work on urbanism, The Life and Death of Great American Cities, marked the advent of a tradition of criticizing measures of urban modernization that were once utterly uncontroversial. Now, in our time, the phenomenon of gentrification has become so common, coupled with the rhetoric of preserving old neighborhoods and their supposedly diverse communities, that every change in the built urban environment is hotly contested and now must pass through an involved processed based on the ideals of procedural justice. In other words, we no longer “clear slums” or engage in top-down urban renewal without going through a bureaucratic process by which such changes are subordinated to democratic controls. In practical terms, this is a brake on the development of cities and a self-limited mechanism upon urban change, and, by extension, on social change.

      Another way to think about this would be to say that most extant societies as we know them consist of an admixture of “overmen” and “last men” (or incipient types of each). Existing institutions mediate between the kind of society that incipient overmen are striving toward and the kind of society that incipient last men are striving toward. If a given society was composed exclusively of one or the other, then self-limiting mechanisms would evaporate and that society would converge upon the ideal or one or the other.

      Nietzsche has already envisioned the kind of civilization that would emerge from a society of last men. But despite the fact that Nietzsche introduced the idea of the overman, I find nothing in Nietzsche that even suggests the kind of civilization that would be composed of a society of overmen — if there could be such a society. This is something that I would like to write about, but I will have to think about it.

      Best wishes,


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