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Foucault’s Theory of Biopower, Essay Example

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Essay

The idea that governments exist, in part, in an antagonistic relationship with the people they govern is common enough throughout human history. However, the idea that governments seek to manipulate and control all aspects of life over their citizens through the primary control of sex and reproduction is less evident in the works of philosophers, political scientists, and historians.  One highly notable exception to this is the philosopher Michel foucault who in works such as The History of Sexuality sought to understand not only the rudiments of sexual and political power, but the way in which a kind of politics that he identified as “biopolitics” might shape the future of humanity. The idea of biopolitics is one that is very complicated, but basically rests on the premise that governments attempt to create conditions of servitude among the governed which are at least partially enforced through the control of sexuality and sexual reproduction. Nowhere is this political policy more obvious to most observers than in the Chinese “One Child” policy that is an outright attempt by a state power to exert direct population control. China’s policy can be examined in light of Foucault’s writings on sexual repression and political control quite easily.

As Maurizio Lazzarato asserts in Biopolitics/Bioeconomics: A Politics of Multiplicity, the way that Foucault defines biopolitics is connected to the way that Foucault basically views the relationship between the state and the individual. For Foucault, the control of sexuality and sexual identity within any given society is par of the political distribution of power.  Lazzarato observes that in Foucault’s perspective biopoltics connects to “a politics of “society” … where the heterogeneity of  dispositifs intervene on the totality of conditions for life, aiming to constitute subjectivity through a soliciting of choices and individual decisions.” (Lazzarato, 8) this shows that the theory of biopolitics or biopower indicates a string degree of control by the state over individuality. In fact, it may be the case, according to the perspective of biopower, that control over life itself is the most important and most contentious issue of both the present and the future.

This would place China’s present efforts at population control squarely on the side of a futuristic vision of what it means to enact state policies that  are, in effect, decrees over life and death. The issue of such significance that Lazzarato ranks it as being bot new and profound in terms of the future development of human culture. He says that “ That life and living being, that the species and its productive requirements have moved to the heart of political struggle is something that is radically new in human history.” (Biopower 1) This kind of viewpoint shows that the idea of biopower is meant to connect to the newest developments and grounds of political struggle. It is hard to overestimate the importance that Foucault places on this struggle because it is literally the power to control life and death. It is also, perhaps of even more consequence, the power to control the definition of life and sexuality.

Seen from this point of view, China’s One Child law is much more than a simple, empirical method to deal with population control. It is a direct extension of the state’s power to control and direct human sexuality and therefore, according to the  theory of biopower, constitutes a grab by the state to determine the most important and primary source of power in any society: its life-energy, so to speak. This is stated in an obvious way by Lazzarato when he says “Consequently, biopolitics is the strategic coordination of these power relations in order to extract a surplus of power from living beings.” (Biopower 4)  This may seem, at first, like a complicated idea, but it is actually very simple. What it means is that  biopower is a kind of way that the biological processes of humanity are harnessed by an external power, in this case, government, in order to exploit that power to a specific end. In the case of the subversion of sexuality and reproduction by the state, the end that is actually gained is not merely the numerical influence over populations, as in the case of China, but the creation of a state-based power that holds sovereignty over life and death.

Foucault points out in his work The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction that the way in which biopower operates in the modern world is very similar to the way in which political power was understood throughout many stages of history. He writes that “one of the characteristic privileges of sovereign power was the right to decide life and death” (Foucault 135). This means that a policy such as China’s One Child policy must be viewed as an attempt to expand the historical power of sovereigns over life and death to the very issue of birth and life itself.  The first idea: that sovereigns have power over life and death is, as mentioned, an ancient idea. the idea that sovereigns have power over birth and the issuance of life itself is a peculiarly modern issue. Foucault sees this issue at the forefront of humanity’s future.

Another important thing to remember in this connection is the idea that biopower is always intent on gathering power from a source that stands outside of itself. To this end, the state, in the case of China, gains power from the control of future births and the legal granting of life. This effectively allows the state to draw a source of power from outside of itself on two important points. One is from the natural cycles of human sexuality and reproduction, the other is from the simple passing of time.  All of this is quite in keeping with Lazzarato’s observation that “Biopower coordinates and targets a power that does not properly belong to it, that comes from the “outside.” Biopower is always born of something other than itself.” (Biopower 4). With these basic facts about biopower firmly established it is possible to address some other important ideas such as what are the impacts of China’s One Child policy and what do these impacts show about the influence of biopolitics and biopower generally when viewed through Foucault’s perspective?      In order to answer these questions, it si necessary to examine more of what Foucault writes in connection to the political repression of sexuality. As his ideas are made more and more clear, the connection between the political manipulations he identifies and the goals of China’s One child policy should also be made much more readily apparent.  this is because Foucault’s true reason for investigating the link between the repression of sexuality and political power is to determine the ultimate goal fo political power itself. In the case of modern politics, Foucault basically views the power over sex and reproduction to be of the same magnitude of importance as the historic power that sovereigns held over life and death. Therefore he writes that the history of human sexuality can never truly be understood in any kind of “pure” way but must always be viewed as an extension of the  political context of history.

Fir example, Foucault writes that in regard to the history of human sexuality  that “we must not refer to a history of sexuality to the agency of sex; but rather show how “sex” is historically subordinate to sexuality.” (Foucault 157)  This statement shows in an obvious way that Foucault saw the influence of the state over sexuality as being always-present and based on something other than the natural expression of human sexuality. The way that Foucault views these issues actually goes far beyond the simple assertion that human sexuality has historically been used in a political way.  What Foucault is actually suggesting is that human society is effectively controlled primarily through the sovereign control of sexuality an reproduction. So, according to Foucault, in order to become truly free of the political manipulation of any given society, its conceptions about sex must be seriously challenged, if not outright overturned.

In actuality, Foucault’s ideas about how the repression of  sexuality through political means might be abolished is not as important as his detailed diagnoses of how sexuality is controlled by political power. He writes for example that “The notion of repressed sex is not, therefore, only a theoretical matter.” By this he means to suggest precisely the kind of pragmatic results that can be attained through a sexually based state policy such as China’s One Child law. He goes on to suggest that sexual social mores, such as those practiced during the Victorian Age, actually served the function of subverting sexuality from its natural role over human evolution. Foucault writes that social mores in the Victorian era are a solid example of how political powers control sexuality and “subvert the law that governs it, and change its future.” (Foucault 8) the key statement about controlling the future shows a direct connection to China’s One child policy.

What Foucault’s theories show most clearly when placed in relation to the Chinese policy is that the ancient paradigm about sovereignty over life and death have simply been extended in modern times. This goes along with the idea that China’s true intention with the One child policy is to gain power from controlling the future. This amounts to an illustration of Foucault’s point that “one might say that the ancient right to take life or let live was replaced by a power to foster life or disallow it to the point of death.” (Foucault 138) Of course, the policy enacted by China is a real-world example of this idea. the policy of controlling the birth-rate of the population is more than a statistical approach to an economic issue. it is an extension of state power into a root-level influence over the power of life and death.

Foucault’s ideas show a unique light on the policies such as those practiced by China which are meant to gain population control. According to Foucault, as previously mentioned, the attempt by any state to control its population is actually an attempt to control the disposition of fundamental social ideas such as family, sexual pleasure, and the division of economic resources.  Each of these ideas plays a role in the overall policy of population control. For this reason, Foucault writes that population control by the modern state is “tied to the disciplines of the body; the harnessing, intensification, and distribution of forces; the adjustment and economy of energies” while at the same time being “applied to the regulation of populations, through all the far-reaching effects of its activity” (Foucault 145). This is basically another way of saying the practices of population control, such as those enacted by the Chinese government, are only meant, in part, to control the numerical population.

The larger intent of such policies is to undermine the spontaneous human expression of human sexuality. In many ways the premise of population control can be regarded as a ruse in that there are many other ways to address the concern of overpopulation than through the direct state-enforced control over reproduction. Among possible alternative solutions include the widespread distribution of birth-control devices and  education about sexuality. Also, the increased government support for education, employment, and opportunity for Chinese youth. Another possible alternative solution to the problem would be the providing of incentives to those families who elect to have only a single child.  The proliferation of potential alternative ideas is such that China’s incorporation of the One Child policy is more or less exposed as an attempt at something much deeper than population control. The corresponding analysis by Foucault regarding the inherent nature of state power and control of sexuality provides an ample explanation for the additional motives that China may have in pursuing its policy.

The Chinese policy began in the late 1970’s and was created by the government. It had a multiple number of purposes according to the government. Among these purposes was to help to ease poverty, the burden on social programs, infrastructure,  and employment that were associated with china’s projected population growth. The policy was aimed at city-dwellers and restricted any urban located Chinese couple to the right to have only a single child. The policy was not applied in rural areas and was, of course, not enforced in the case of twins or in remarrying couples who already had more than a single child between them. Overall, the policy is thought to impact about one-third of China’s population. The policy was met with a great deal of opposition in china from various quarters. it has remained a controversial policy both within china and around the globe.

One of the main reasons why the policy has continued to generate controversy is because it has reportedly been the cause of an increase in both abortions of female fetuses and a rise in female infanticide. This means that the One Child policy has had a demonstrable impact on females that is much more radical than on the consequences experienced by males.  Given the fact that the initial policy is aimed at gaining control of women’s sexual and reproductive rights, the corresponding increases in abortion and infanticide of female infants shows, clearly that the policy has implications that far exceed population control. the disproportionate killing of female infants in China as a result of the One Child Policy is an obvious vindication of Foucault’s theories about biopower and biopolitics. In this case, the use of biopolitics by the state against a huge portion of its own population (all females) shows that the intention of the population control program is actually to control both the unborn and the living.

While such a policy will also, obviously, result in a diminishing of the overall percentage of women in China’s population, its ostensible purpose was simply to control the exploding numbers of the population and not to create a gender gap. the gap in gender will of course lead to an imbalance of political and cultural power that is held by men and women in China.  If these kinds of observations about the impact of China’s One Child policy seem to infer very bad things about the Chinese government that is because they are intended to do just that. In reference to foucault’s writings on the nature of political repression and sexuality, the best conclusion to reach in regard to China’s policies on reproduction is that they represent the attempt of government to shape and control all aspects of human life. They are therefore policies that show the deepest and most powerful intrusion of government over the freedom and life of the individual. If this is the case, then it wold be expected that, in China, a majority of the population would take a stand against the One child policy on either intellectual or moral grounds, or both.

In reality, the program of the One Child policy in China is actually popular among a majority of the population. Whether or not this fact suggests that Foucault’s assertion of an overall link between the repression of sexuality and the repression of a population is proved or challenged by this fact, the situation shows that  government does, in fact, exert direct influence over human sexuality. Going back to Foucault’s theories about biopower, the main ideas that Foucault mentioned in terms of how the politics of the future might play out, were intimately tied to issues of reproduction. this includes future developments that might take place in the field of genetics or eugenics.  By establishing control of population and birth, the state prepares ground for taking control of genetic and other scientific advances in relation to birth, death and life-extension. According to Foucault, it is the primary repression of human sexuality that allows any state to gain absolute control over all aspects of life.

If, as the example of China’s One Child policy, seems to indicate, the trend of the future is for governments to exert control over life in ways that they have traditionally controlled death, then there are other aspects of the repression of sexuality that pose problems for future generations. One of these problems ironically involves the incorporation of Foucault’s theories about biopower.  This is the problem of confusing sexual ‘liberation” with political liberation due to the well-defined link provided by  Foucault between sexuality and political power. However, in this regard, the state is able to increase its ability to define the individual’s life-experience by controlling access to sexuality and pleasure even while creating a climate where the individual appears to be breaking social conventions to explore their individual sexuality. In reality, such practices are generally ties by political laws and power to placing an individual into a more or less compromised state relative to others who may want to create power over that individual. So, for example, a person who is homosexual in America seeks the government to sanction their sexuality in order to validate its viability.

In such cases, the state is still the primary power-broker in terms of defining individual sexual experience. So long as an individual is looking to the state in order to define their sense of sexuality, they are function outside of sex as a natural reproductive function. That person is not entering a political area where they have more or less conceded all power of the individual to the power of the state. in the case of China, a majority of the population is willing to support a state-sponsored reduction of females in the population even when such a reduction of population involves infanticide on a massive scale. This is because the Chinese citizen is willing to view the expression of sexuality and reproductive rights as something that is defined by the state. As such, biopower and biopolitics have already manifested themselves in modern politics as the most important considerations of the day.

While it is possible that biopower and biopolitics indicate a future for humanity that will be on of self-liberation from state-sponsored repression of human sexuality, the more likely event is that techniques of control through biopower will continue to be refined and perfected by modern states. The One Child policy of China may strike many Westerners as being an overt sign of fascism or dictatorial rule. these same observers remain happily bind to the fact that their own culture’s conception of heterosexual marriage, family, and children are precisely those attributes which most readily contribute to the thriving of a capitalist empire. The fact remains that in almost every case of the modern state, political power is based to some degree on the state’s control of sexuality. As previously mentioned in this examination, the control of sexuality is different than the state’s control of sex and reproduction. The control of sexuality is meant to control personal identity.

Future generations will undoubtedly face an increase in the significance that biopoltics plays in the lives of individuals as well as events on a global scale. As insisted by Foucault in his philosophical vision, the control of human sexuality represents the most intrusive and profound form of control that it is possible for any political organization, group, or individual to acquire. Since there is a long lasting historical link between notions of sovereignty and the control exerted by leaders over life and death, the control over genetic or reproductive technologies of the future will be of utmost importance in defining the range and scope of power employed by governments.  If policies such as China’s One Child rule are any indication, the trend of the future will be toward a degree of greater state control over reproductive and sexual rights of individuals in all societies and cultures.

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction. NY Pantheon Books, 1978.
Lazzarato, Maurizio. Bioeconomics: a politics of multiplicity.
Lazzarato, Maurizio. From Biopower to biopolitics.

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