I should say from the outset, I’m not sure I understand the claims made about biopower. Following on from this post I re-read a bit of Foucault’s History of Sexuality v1. In the other post I noted that for Paolo Virno biopower/biopolitics (also not clear on that latter term or the difference) is the result of labor power being commodified and/or the result of capitalism. (“Capitalism” and “commodification of labor power” are the same thing from one point of view and different from another.) In discussion on that other post Jasper wrote that while there may well have been a pre-capitalist biopolitics,

for the period Foucault is referring to, the late 19th, early 20th cents. (…) biopolitics *is* a function of capital. Just because there was biopolitics before capitalism doesn’t invalidate that claim. There was trade, empires, wars before capitalism, but that doesn’t mean that, in the 20th-cent., capital isn’t largely the sufficient reason for such things.

That seems sensible to me and I like that this emphasizes things I want to talk about and read about. (Putting Foucault in more contact with Marx, so to speak.)

It still seems to me that Virno’s claim is wrong in at least one sense. Biopolitics/biopower did not originate with capitalism. Certainly not in Agamben’s sense (“power over life” or something like that), and not in Foucault’s sense either. Foucault does link what he’s talking about with the origin of capitalism, but for Foucault biopower/biopolitics (bracketing for now the differences between Agamben and Foucault) helps explain capitalism’s origins, rather than capitalism explaining the origin of biopolitics. Foucault identifies one phase of what he’s on about as corresponding “to the need to form a “labor force” and to ensure its reproduction. The second phase corresponds to that epoch of Spatkapitalismus [late capitalism – should be an umlaut over the first “a”] in which the exploitation of wage labor does not demand the same violent and physical constraints as in the nineteenth century.” (114.)

Foucault also argues that the origins of the version of sexuality he’s on about (not sure I follow or agree with all the claims he makes here but I’ll leave that out) was with the bourgeoisie. “[T]hey tried it first on themselves,” he writes. (122.) Foucault does link the growth of this “emphasis on the body (…) to the process of growth and establishment of bourgeois hegemony” but argues not that this emphasis was an effect of bourgeois hegemony. Rather, bourgeois dominance “was in part dependant on that cultivation” of (emphasis on?) the body. (125.) It seems to me that Foucault’s claim here is in part that the change in sexuality he discusses was part of the bourgeoisie’s move from being a class in itself to being a class for itself (and that move is part of how the origin of capitalism came about). As Foucault writes, “one of the primordial forms of class consciousness is the affirmation of the body; at least, this was the case for the bourgeoisie during the eighteenth century.” (126.) He also writes of bourgeois sexuality as one which the bourgeoisie “endowed [to] itself” as a form of “political affirmation.” (127.)

Updating, continuing my notes:
In the final section of the book Foucault talks about sovereignty, starting with “the right to decide life and death.” Foucault has in mind two things – the right to wage war, understood as the right to force some people to risk death during the defense of the state (ie, the carrying out of military operations). This is the power to “expose their life,” something Foucault characterizes as an indirect power over life and death. The second thing Foucault has in mind the ability to execute people. (135.)

One claim I ramble in the direction of here is that the former power, the ability to expose people to death, seems to me to be a power (analogous to that?) held by or delegated to capitalists in some cases. Jobs kill, often with impunity if one takes a long-ish view (a major point of workers’ compensation when introduced in the US was the declare that accidents which injured or killed workers be thought of largely as being no one’s fault). Likewise in some circumstances unemployment can be fatal too – in some historical moments it exposes one to the risk of starvation or the risk of denial of needed medical care. (Stan Weir and others’ remarks that firing is the economic equivalent to execution is not solely metaphorical.) A version of exposure to death, carried out with relative impunity at least for a time, has been done by police in Canada, among other places. The latter power, the power to execute is not nearly so often delegated to capitalists, but I think it’s arguable that it has been on a number of occasions – like in the use of pinkertons and other goons in violently breaking strikes, and in the ongoing murder of unionists in Colombia (800 in the last 6 year). Likewise, though perhaps not linked to capitalists. That power was (is!) exercised a lot in particular during primitive accumulation and is the power that anchors the regular operations of capital.

I’m curious where acts of violence perpetrated by men on women sit in relation to these powers and to the link I want to make between these powers and capitalism. (This latter I think allows a connection with the patria potestas that Foucault mentions in passing on 135, the right of married men to dispose of the lives of their children and wives. Agamben makes a similar remark in passing s
somewhere.) There’s a great many deaths of women at the hands of men in the US regularly. There’s cases or issues like the killings of women in Juarez Mexico and the disappearances of indigenous women in Canada. In her excellent book Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici criticizes both Marx and Foucault for inadequate attention to and limited utility for understanding witch-hunts as primitive accumulation and as biopolitical. I’ve temporarily misplaced my copy so I can’t quote, but there’s a section on the loosening of laws against rape and the growth of sexual assault and other attacks on women by men, including (proto?)working class men. For Federici part of the significance is that these actions helped subjugate women and as a result the working class. In a certain sense, these practices could be understood as a negative sort of commons or a conjunction of commoning with primitive accumulation: men forcibly held women as common(s) in what was for the men perhaps a freely associated production (via violent appropriation) of sexual use values. In The Arcane of Reproduction (also misplaced, probly under a stack of paper or other books somewhere) Leopoldina Fortunati comments somewhere that domestic violence functions to keep women performing unwaged labor. In the former case, sexual assault, it’s not clear to me if the actions are more like exposure to death or more like execution. The latter case is unclear as well. As a parallel, if a king (or president or slaveholder) were to order someone to endure a potentially but not necessarily lethal torture (either for entertainment or as an object lesson) that clearly seems to be an exercise of the power Foucault is talking about but it’s not clear if it’s killing or forcing the risk of death. I guess the two aren’t absolutely opposed.

Foucault links the sovereign’s right to kill with “a historical type of society in which power was exercised mainly as a means of deduction, a subtractive mechanism, a right to appropriate a portion of the wealth, a tax of products, goods and services, labor and blood, levied on the subjects. Power in this instance was essentially a right of seizure: of things, time, bodies, and ultimately life itself; it culminated in the privilege to seize hold of life in order to suppress it.” (136.) Foucault doesn’t claim that this power goes away, but I think he does overemphasize the degree to which it shifts into the background and he doesn’t address the existence of this power in the hands of non-state actors. I’ve already named what I think are a few examples of this. I also want to comment that the persistence of enclosure (the constitutive conditions which keep labor power generally commodified) and the continued extraction of surplus value from sellers of labor power (and the labor of others who aren’t waged) are precisely forms of this “deductive” power and they rest at least in part on the power to kill and to expose to death. I would guess that Foucault makes this overstatement at least in part because he doesn’t look much at working life, either paid or unpaid. That’s fine insofar as it’s not his project – presumably the project is the history of sexuality – but it does mean that the scope of his periodization isn’t as broad as he may think. (I also find his remarks unconvincing on 145 that struggles shifted from those about law to being about the contents of life – the satisfaction of needs, health, happiness, etc – the terms are vague enough that I think think they fit nearly any struggle carried out by the people consigned to surplus labor in any society so far.)

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