A biopolitics of the future; or, The monster at the door (Journal of Visual Culture & HaFI, 11)

This is the eleventh instalment of a collaborative effort by the Journal of Visual Culture and the Harun Farocki Institut, initiated by the COVID-19 crisis. The call sent to JVC’s editorial board, and a wide selection of previous contributors and members of its extended communities, described the task as follows: “There is a lot of spontaneous, ad hoc opinion-making and premature commentary around, as to be expected. However, the ethics and politics of artistic and theoretical practice to be pursued in this situation should oblige us to stay cautious and to intervene with care in the discussion. As one of JVC’s editors, Brooke Belisle, explains: ‘We are not looking for sensationalism, but rather, moments of reflection that: make connections between what’s happening now and the larger intellectual contexts that our readership shares; offer small ways to be reflective and to draw on tools we have and things we know instead of just feeling numb and overwhelmed; help serve as intellectual community for one another while we are isolated; support the work of being thoughtful and trying to find/make meaning…which is always a collective endeavour, even if we are forced to be apart.'” TH


A Biopolitics of the Future; or, The Monster at the Door

Amit S. Rai/p>



The Delhi police invited Yamraj (the Hindu god of death) to take a walk through urban neighbourhoods to scare people into staying home.


The Delhi police also put on marches with Covid-19 costumes on to warn residents to stay home.


The virus has been brought under control in some parts of the world. In the process, its become a familiar monster. It has also been represented, captured in discourse and through media practices of framing, as a monster, something completely other. The monster metaphor is the habituated matrix of intelligibility for the Absolute Other in societies of socialised Disney; the merciless swarm, the terrorist attacker, an unseen enemy, a ‘mugger’ (Boris Johnson’s racist word of choice), or an aleatory and hence risky trans-species leap—all these metaphors are on their way to becoming different flavoured superhero franchises for Marvel or DC, but they also have one other thing in common: the Monstrosity of the Future.

What we see all too clearly, and indeed in the British and Indian experiences with the virus especially, is that Covid-19, in its very monstrosity and its ‘biopolitical containment’ has heightened certain inequalities, regimes of violence and injustice, specifically around race, caste, gender, and class vectors, and has more thoroughly entrenched risk as the hegemonic mode of governance and the hyper-surveilled, semi-private, semi-specular ‘home’ as the unit of social administration in racial-caste capital.

Around April 10, 2020, it became all too clear that the UK Government had been advancing a faulty set of numbers concerning the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the population. Over the following week, it would backtrack, confess shortcomings, and curiously ‘discover’ that very old administrative and statistical procedures had not been factored into the mortality numbers. The biopolitical crux of the problem was the question of acceptable risk and the (mis)administration of populations understood as consumer segments, as ‘herds’ to be engineered. While the Tories’s almost grudging language of solidarity with frontline workers is a far cry from the “There is no society” days of Margaret Thatcher, the conservative government’s slow response to the virus, based on an ideological understanding of the epidemiology of ‘herd immunity’, directly contributed to the needless death of thousands in elderly care homes and in communities of colour throughout the UK. Even as deaths in hospital due to C-19 were being daily reported by the massively under-funded and austerity starved NHS, deaths out ‘in the public’ were being reported once a week and not being factored into the daily totals. Which meant that anywhere from 10-40% of C-19 deaths around the UK were not being reported or integrated into overall figures.

The revelation of this bureaucratic glitch came as a bit of a shock to most people, as the mortality numbers for the UK were already grim, and well on track to match the numbers in Italy and Spain, European countries particularly hard it by the virus. Many people in the UK just slightly older than the PM were not as lucky as him in his full recovery, and many could have been saved if he and his government had acted swiftly and with care and solidarity with the most vulnerable. But today around 80% of the UK’s nursing homes and elderly care facilities have reported infections, and the death toll for these elders is rising sharply. On April 14th, the Financial Times (Gill Plimmer, Laura Hughes, and Sarah Neville reporting from London), published a piece that outlined the coming horror: “Britain’s care homes are struggling to cope with a wave of [C-19] cases, with thousands of residents at risk of dying as the disease spreads. Operators say official figures misrepresent the extent of the critis and complain that they are short of protective equipment.”

The article noted that around 400,000 older people currently live in UK care homes, and up to two-thirds of the facilities are reporting that elderly and frail residents have contracted the infection. Statistical modelling—dodgy at the best of times, seriously flawed in the case of the UK’s mortality numbers—optimistically suggest that around a quarter of this elderly population, that is around 100,000 people, could die if C-19 ‘becomes endemic in care facilities’. But it is clear these are not real numbers, and the statistics we have for actual deaths are not real numbers precisely because of how the statistics are compiled. Coupled with the lack of resources and protective equipment for front-line workers, the situation in the UK continues to be very serious. Of course, it is easy to say that this world health crisis could have been handled better by this or that state, and that should be said and also strongly debated in parliament and in the public sphere. But what is harder to grasp, very difficult to model, and easy to manipulate in populist talking points, is the long-term effects of austerity on a society, on a population structured in different kinds of racial, class, social, embodied, and regional domination. The numbers of front-line NHS staff dying of C-19 are disproportionately people of colour…

What is biopolitics? This question has taken on renewed urgency post-Covid-19. In his College De France lectures from 1977-79 Michel Foucault proposes various definition of this by now major concept in contemporary critical theory. Foucault wants to understand the limits that the capitalist state imposes on its own mode of governance. How does the capitalist state ‘limit’ itself and its own ‘outside,’ civil society? Through the ideology and discursive practice of laissez faire. Foucault will analyse:

1. Objects (e.g. populations, agendas, strategies/tactics, discourses, regimes of Truth, etc.);

2. Rules (system of limits and political legitimacy of operation of State power);

3. Objectives (political economic goals of the capitalist state).

Foucault’s focus then is not on abstract categories but concrete practices of the capitalist state. What this enables in his method is to immediately insist that there is no Unified Total State (even when states may tend toward totalitarianism, as in Nazi Germany or settler colonialism as in Israeli Zionism). “The state only exists as states, in the plural” (5): thus specificity and plurality are the guiding threads of his analysis. From the 16th to the 19th centuries the world witnessed the emergence and maturation of the capitalist mode of production, the deepening of African slavery and the expansion of European settler colonialism throughout the so-called ‘New World’. Race and class are clearly articulated in this history, which Foucault can’t seem to acknowledge fully. And here’s the key point, the methodological ‘advance’ Foucault claims he is making:

“The question here is the same as the question I addressed with regard to madness, disease, delinquency, and sexuality. In all of these cases, it was not a question of showing how these objects were for a long time hidden before finally being discovered, nor of showing how all these objects are only wicked illusions or ideological products to be dispelled in the [light] of reason finally having reached its zenith. It was a matter of showing by what conjunctions a whole set of practices—from the moment they become coordinated with a regime of truth—was able to make what does not exist (madness, disease, delinquency, sexuality, etcetera), nonetheless become something, something however that continues not to exist. ….[W]hat I would like to show is not how an error…could be born, but how a particular regime of truth, and therefore not an error, makes something that does not exist able to become something. It is not an illusion since it is precisely a set of practices, real practices, which established it and thus imperiously marks it out in reality…The point of all these investigations concerning madness, disease, delinquency, sexuality, and what I am talking about now, is to show how the coupling of a set of practices and a regime of truth form an apparatus (dispositif) of knowledge-power that effectively marks out in reality that which does not exist and legitimately submits it to the division between true and false.” (19)

Here we come to the crux of the matter, methodologically speaking. Foucault aims to analyse different series of conjunctions connecting sets of practices as they become coordinated with a regime of truth (double articulation of practice with practice and practice with Truth). What happens when practices are coordinated with a regime of truth? This process of knowledge-power, this apparatus (dispositif) makes “what does not exist (madness, disease, delinquency, sexuality, etcetera), nonetheless become something, something however that continues not to exist.” What does Foucault mean by this? If we think of the Covid-19 ‘disease’ as something that does not exist in the specific way that Foucault means ‘not to exist’ here, as a mobile trans-species virus that has ‘become something’ different through its own vectors of transmission, in its administration in lockdowns across the world, in mortality rates and demographic statistics, in material shocks to feminist and queer ecologies of care—this monster is mappable through the double articulation of practices with practices. For instance, the practices of social hygiene or physical distancing are correlated with ‘less risky’ behaviour (impossible to ignore the racist genealogies here); and social practices of quaratine are articulated with different Regimes of Truth, some ‘scientific’ (Covid-19 can quickly kill a human being in definite and already well-documented ways), some racist (the association of one race, nation, or culture as sole vectors for the virus).

The question of race is posed repeatedly by Foucault, but usually in oblique ways (this is analysed quite brilliantly by Anne Stoler (1995) in Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault’s History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things). In Discipline and Punish (1976) and in the lectures collected as Abnormal (1974-75; Foucault 2004) and Security, Territory, Population (1977-78, especially lectures 4, 5, 10-13; Foucault, 2007), Foucault suggested (usually vaguely) how race and class were articulated in complex ways in the (neo-)liberal invention of ‘population’ and the ‘society of security’; the ‘biological destiny of the species’ (2007: 10) becomes the target of risk assessments and insurance coverage. Race for Foucault is an instrument and target of relations of power, emergent in the contexts of the arts of government, or what he will call specifically governmentality; the responsibilization, or becoming-calculable of conduct (from the State to the individual), the long catalogue of risky behaviours that came to form an archive of the governance of populations, deployed in the material and discursive control of ethical ‘subjectivation’ (the production of subjects-of-governmentality). Race becomes a variable in the calculation of human capital; race and its material vectors are transversal to genetics, affect, family, nation, ‘intelligence’, nature, history, civilisation, customs, species-being, sexuality, ecology, conduct, culture, humanity, rationality. What forms of subaltern composition (of organisations and of subjectivity) can critically affirm an anti-racist, anti-capitalist, feminist, queer, non-assmilationist, radically intersectional politics of the body and organisation, a politics that will have been for the benefit of a more-than-human time to come?

All of this has direct relevance for how we understand and develop solidarities across different forms of struggles for justice and equality, especially in the wake of Covid-19. In Discipline and Punish and in the 1977-78 lectures on security societies (see lecture one, pages 10-21), Foucault had analysed the state administration of quarantine and the emergence of the defence of population (understood as a multiplicity of individuals within a manipulable millieu, a town or other environment) through technocratic assessments of risks to security, from ‘miasmas’ to potential epidemics to ‘social unrest’ (2007: 11). Not surprisingly, Foucault’s analysis of the emergence of biopolitical population from the historical administration of quarantine has taken on renewed interest post-Covid19. In a recent critique of Panagiotis Sotiris’ popular article ‘Is Democratic Biopolitics Possible?’, Bryan Doniger notes how a dangerous confusion of biopolitics and anatomo-politics is often at work in biopolitical theory.

‘Anatomo-politics is a ‘politics of the human body’ (243). This means that anatomo-politics doesn’t refer to all political techniques that alter the population’s health, but rather just to techniques that directly act on the body. More specifically, anatomo-politics attempts to discipline the human body. As Foucault puts it, discipline is always ‘addressed to the body’ (242). When we are disciplined, this means that our body is directly induced to behave more productively or usefully. Anatomo-politics ‘could be used to take control over bodies … to increase their productive force through exercise, drill, and so on’ (ibid.). A good example of anatomo-politics would be therapy in a psychiatric institution… Another good example would be putting a respirator on a patient suffering from COVID in an attempt to directly control and maximize their body’s health.’

By contrast, Doniger argues, biopolitics describes not the politics of the body, but of what Foucault terms ‘the human race’ (243). “This form of politics, like anatomo-politics, is not a blanket term for all politics related to the health of humans. The difference between anatomo-politics and biopolitics is that biopolitics doesn’t describe techniques that discipline an individual, but techniques that secure the health of the ‘race’ or species… Thus, instead of monitoring and controlling individuals, biopolitics relies on “processes such as the ratio of births to deaths, the rate of reproduction, the fertility of a population, and so on” (243). These processes measure and regulate the health of the whole population via statistics.’

It is in this regime of biopolitics that took hold in several Western and settler colonial societies from the end of the 18th century on that criminality becomes less about ‘bad behaviour’ and more and more focused on a demographically distributed ‘risk’. Thus, “fighting crime is no longer about disciplining individual bodies, but about assessing risk. Biopolitical measures of the population — crime rate, rate of drug use, rate of gun-related deaths, and so on — are used to justify heavy police presence in some communities (for instance, in American communities of color [overwhelmingly Black and Latinx]). They will also be used to justify an almost nonexistent police presence in others. The racist, violent goal of these biopolitical practices is no longer to control every individual’s behavior, but to target those populations who, ‘statistically speaking,’ pose a special risk to themselves, to others, and to the free market” (Bryan Doniger (“Two Problems with Democratic Biopolitics (Critique in times of Coronavirus)”, https://criticallegalthinking.com/2020/04/28/two-problems-with-democratic-biopolitics-critique-in-times-of-coronavirus/ )

Doniger helps us to pose the question of biopolitics better, clarifying the relation of risk to security and population in biopolitical regimes of governmentality. How the ‘abnormal races’ were understood to be and constituted as existential threats to Western societies (security and disorder problems, lynch law), or how processes of decolonisation from the liberation of Haiti in 1804 to the independence of Jamaica in 1962, contributed to political and economic crises in the unfolding construction of the apparatuses (dispositif) of biopolitics—these are marginal to the story that Foucault believes he is telling. We know these histories today to be at the (disavowed) centre of biopolitical governmentality and racial capital. In the first lecture of Security, Territory, Population, Foucault notes that the apparatuses of security (which would evolve into full-blown biopolitical regimes over the course of two centuries) operate on a millieu understood as in some senses an action on the future, as the spatial target (extension, rhythms, and distributions of population and quality and quantity of administrative space) is always in flux, probabilistic, partially speculative, and in a certain sense potential. This is one part of the story of how temporality and biopolitics are linked in a constant, future-oriented and entreprising potentialisation of human capital.

To leave it there would be remiss today. The non-human futures of the SARS-CoV-2 virus will not be written to be stored in the digital archive, even though we may have its complete genetic makeup already mapped. Its trans-species assemblage will have had vectors that are imperceptible to us today. Foucault calls our attention insistently to the micro and molar complicities with power-as-Potestas, the consent we give to our governmental multiplicity, the violences and injustices we repeat habitually and proliferate and that structure psycho-social relations in societies of the norm and security. The question is not whether biopolitical life after this virus can be a radically democratic affirmation of a becoming that exits from the ‘necropolitical’ tendencies, market monopolies, and embodied infrastructures of human capital and the society of control and prosumption (see Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” 2003). Only a revolution can do that. The question today is to draw material and diagrammatic resources from past struggles for decolonial futures, to make felt the ongoing happenings of those radical and revolutionary becomings, to amplify their resonances as untimely and counter-actualising ‘memories of the future’.


Amit S. Rai Walthamstow, London



May 3rd, 2020 — Rosa Mercedes / 02