Issue 11.1-11.2 | Fall 2012/Spring 2013 / Guest edited by Elizabeth Bernstein and Janet R. Jakobsen

Surplus Life: Biopower and Neoliberalism

In my work, I draw from Michel Foucault’s formulations of biopower to think about the organization and management of life, health, illness, and death, especially as those forces instantiate through gender/race/sexuality. Here, I will outline some of the ways that a biopower framework has been useful for me. I will also think about ways that the neoliberal restructuring of the state and economy (especially in the United States) offers and requires some revisions to Foucault’s terms and models.

As is pretty familiar by now, Foucault argues that the modern form of power—what he terms biopower—takes on “life itself,” or, how to manage, contain, constrain, and incite life, as a political concern for governance. Throughout the body of his work, he articulates two trajectories of biopower. The first is disciplinary power, which was taken up by what we can think of as a first phase of US Foucault scholarship, in the 1980s and 1990s. Discipline organizes bodies and subjectivities and their relations to other bodies and subjectivities, especially in terms of space and movement. The History of Sexuality and Discipline and Punish developed an analytics of discipline, which proved especially productive for early queer studies, as well as feminist interventions into this field.[1] The second trajectory was biopolitical power. This came to the forefront in a second phase of US engagement, in the 2000s, during the publication of the Collège de France lectures.[2] Rather than the individual subject/body, biopolitics organizes the population as a political concern. Biopolitical technologies intervene in biological life processes at the level of population patterns—birth rates and policies, epidemic and endemic illness, social and economic productivity, resource needs, and statistical predictions of longevity and death.

Perhaps because of the ways these ideas entered into circulation in the United States (in these phases corresponding with translation and publication), and perhaps because of a tendency of Foucault/Foucaultians (and Enlightenment philosophy more broadly?) to think in terms of a succession of epochs, biopolitics has often been described as following and superseding disciplinary power. Critiques of this epochal view have been generated in the field of critical race studies in particular. Whether in relation to the centrality of the colony as the testing lab for disciplinary mechanisms imported back to the metropole, or the obvious biopoliticization of Black life in the transatlantic slave trade, the neat linear story breaks down upon applying critical race pressure. Recentering race and its figurations through sexuality offers some traction to expand this line of engagement. Foucault suggests that the importance and intensity of sexuality in the modern era follows from its emergence at the juncture of the disciplinary and the biopolitical; the vexed positions of sexual reproduction illustrate this well. In her rearticulation of Foucault through transnational regimes of racial and ethnic productions, Rey Chow has argued that we read Foucault a bit against the grain, and see his history of sexuality as a history of what Chow terms “the ascendancy of whiteness.”[3] This draws necessary attention to the ways that sexual reproduction is always a form of race-making in the modern era. Eugenics in all its forms (family planning, race suicide panics, sterilization programs, overt genocidal slaughter) shows this well. Thus, sexual reproduction as race reproduction requires and creates this suture between the disciplinary and biopolitical.

In the context of neoliberalism, we must not only think about the connections between disciplinary and biopolitical technologies of race/sex regulation,[4] but we must also attend to the ways that life gets figured differently in financialized postindustrial capital.[5] While Foucault does not describe his work this way, looking back we can see that his model of biopower charts the emergence of the modern nation-state, especially in its early twentieth-century welfare state form. In the context of a Keynesian political economy, the life of the national population is set to positively correlate with the life of the economy: both must grow for either one to grow. In a post-Fordist, deregulated capitalism, the economy becomes divorced from labor; the abandonment of mass segments of the US population (through the dismantling of social welfare programs, increased privatization of healthcare, defunding of public education) is not only social, but, very literally, economic. The economy moves on without many of us.

The expansion of prison industries has served to capture and contain the racialized populations made surplus by neoliberal capital.[6] My work looks at social service regimes as the “softer” side of the neoliberal management of its own excesses by charting the emergence of federal homelessness policy in the mid-1980s. This is only the second time in US history (the first occurred during the early New Deal) that the federal government has intervened in what has been understood as a local, bounded problem to be dealt with “on the ground,” where it supposedly takes place. That this policy, the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987, emerged during the Reagan administration is neither ironic nor contradictory. Rather, the birth of federal homelessness policy was the remaking of homelessness into a problem of economic management. It effected a neoliberalization of homelessness which has brought with it a biopoliticization. This means that—in addition to disciplinary-level management techniques of pathologizing/reforming the individual aberrant homeless—we have an interest in homelessness as a specific kind of population to which inheres patterns, tendencies, and, of course, costs. This has been enabled by social science, as quantitative work has sought to capture demographic characteristics that, divorced from social, political-economic contexts, come to be explanatory predictors of homelessness,[7] rather than being seen as the cumulative effects of racialized/gendered labor, housing, and social service markets. Feminist, critical race critiques of the culture of poverty thesis helps us to flip this, and we can begin to understand that those who are targeted by the homeless services nexus—predominantly single, adult men, especially Black and Latino men, and, in some regions, Native—are also those who have been organized outside of labor and family networks. Thus, the work and cost of their management falls directly on the state (or municipal and nonprofit forms as its stand-ins). Here, qualitative social science in an ethnographic mode has tried to show the “good men” of the homeless, leaving untouched the processes of gender/sex/race that make these populations, as well as the cultural narratives about them.[8]

This is also a place where we can clearly see that the mass “redundancies” produced by neoliberalism are set to market logics and processes, and become both socially and economically productive. I have talked about this in terms of “surplus life,” to bring together a notion of productive life-forms with the Marxist notion of surplus populations. But rather than a category of labor, we have a category of raw material to be labored on—by the knowledge and service industries that constitute a homeless management nexus, and which include federal, state, county, and municipal government agencies; nonprofit service providers and advocacy organizations; and social science research centers. Looking at the context of global neoliberal “humanitarianism,” Aihwa Ong has argued this is why inclusion/exclusion models (as in Agamben) are insufficient, as industries of working on (behalf of) the “excluded” have proliferated.[9]

With Ong’s cautioning in mind, this formulation of neoliberal biopolitics, in terms of feminist political action, leads me to a set of concerns that I will pose here as questions:

  • How do our political organizational forms mimic, or not mimic the state, whether or not they are absorbed into the state? How do life calculations through populations of race and sex animate oppositional political work as well?
  • How do we critique neoliberal revanchism without just calling for a gentler state or for the return of the welfare state?
  • In the meantime, how do we deal with immediate, on-the-ground needs? (People need somewhere to live, for example.)
  • And also: how might feminist analyses of the welfare state prove instructive? In other words, how can we do something other than critiquing the effects of the neoliberal state on women/queers/trans people, in order to also think about the machinations of neoliberal, biopolitical governance as gendered and gendering?
  • What might recent anarchist reformulations of Marxist analysis contribute here?
  • And, given our locations, how might the university-under-neoliberal-pressure offer both a 
compromised and forceful site for challenging neoliberal economics?
  1. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Alan 
Sheridan, trans., (New York: Vintage, 1995 [1977]); Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1, An Introduction, Robert Hurley, trans., (New York: Vintage 1990 [1978]). [Return to text]
  2. Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-76, David Macey, trans., (New York: Picador, 2003); Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-79, Graham Burchell, trans., (New York: Palgrave Macmillan,
2008). [Return to text]
  3. Rey Chow, The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism, (New York: Columbia U P, 2002). [Return to text]
  4. Lisa Duggan, The Twilight of Equality? Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy, (Boston: Beacon, 2004). [Return to text]
  5. Patricia Ticineto Clough and Craig Willse, eds., Beyond Biopolitics: Essays on the Governance of Life and Death, (Durham: Duke U P, 2011).
 [Return to text]
  6. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis and Opposition in Globalizing California, (Berkeley: U of California P, 2007). [Return to text]
  7. See, for example: D. P. Culhane and R. Kuhn, “Patterns and Determinants of Public Shelter Utilization Among Homeless Adults in New York City and Philadelphia,” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 17.1(1998): 23-43. [Return to text]
  8. See, for example: Mitchell Duneier, Sidewalk, (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1999).
 [Return to text]
  9. Aihwa Ong, Neoliberalism as Exception, (Durham: Duke U P, 2006). [Return to text]