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This article is about Michel Foucault's social theory. For the Saab automobile engine of the same name, see Saab H engine. For transesterified lipids used as a fuel source, see Biodiesel.

"Biopower" is a term coined by French scholar, historian, and social theorist Michel Foucault. It relates to the practice of modern nation states and their regulation of their subjects through "an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations".[1] Foucault first used the term in his lecture courses at the Collège de France,[2][3] but the term first appeared in print in The Will To Knowledge, Foucault's first volume of The History of Sexuality.[4] In Foucault's work, it has been used to refer to practices of public health, regulation of heredity, and risk regulation, among many other regulatory mechanisms often linked less directly with literal physical health. It is closely related to a term he uses much less frequently, but which subsequent thinkers have taken up independently, biopolitics.

Foucault and the concept of biopower[edit]

Bio-power can be understood as the sole prerogative of the modern nation state to "make live and let die" which is distinct from the medieval version of rule of the sovereign power derived from the ancient Roman law Patria postestas which would be "let live and make die" defined by the personal power of a monarch.[5][6] This kind of attitude of the state toward the lives of its social subjects Foucault argues, is a way of understanding the new formation of power in Western society.

For Foucault, biopower is a technology of power; the distinctive quality of this political technology is that it allows for the control of entire populations. It is an integral feature and essential to the workings of—and makes possible—the emergence of the modern nation state and capitalism, etc.[7] Biopower is literally having power over bodies; it is "an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations".[8] Foucault elaborates further in his lecture courses on Biopower entitled Security, Territory, Population delivered at the Collège de France between January and April 1978:

It relates to governmental concerns of fostering the life of the population, "an anatomo-politics of the human body a global mass that is affected by overall characteristics specific to life, like birth, death, production, illness, and so on.[10] It produces a generalized disciplinary society[11] and regulatory controls through biopolitics of the population".[12][13][14] In his lecture Society Must Be Defended, Foucault's tentative sojourner into biopolitical state racism, and its accomplished rationale of myth-making and narrative, he states the fundamental difference between biopolitics[15] and discipline:

Foucault claims that the previous Greco-Roman, Medieval rule of the emperors, the Divine right of kings and Absolute monarchy[17] model of power and social control over the body was an individualizing mode. After the emergence of the medieval metaphor body politic which meant society as a whole with the ruler, in this case the king, as the head of society with the so-called Estates of the realm next to the monarch with the majority peasant population or feudal serfs at the bottom of the hierarchical pyramid, this meaning of the metaphor was then codified into medieval law for the offence of high treason.[18][19] However, this was drastically altered with the advent of political power in 18th century Europe. The voting franchise, liberal democracy and Political parties, universal adult suffrage exclusively male at this time, eventually extended to women in 1929 in Europe and extending to people of African heritage in America in 1964 African American descent, for further information on this see also Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The emergence of the human sciences and its subsequent direction primarily aimed at modern western man and the society he inhabits, together with the invention of Disciplinary institutions.[20][21][22] During the 16th and 18th centuries with the advent of anatomo-politics of the human body a transition occurred through forcible removal of various European monarchs into a 'scientific' state apparatus and the radical overhaul of judiciary practices coupled with the reinvention and division of those who were to be punished.[23]

A second mode for seizure of power was invented and discovered; this type of power was stochastic and "massifying", not individualizing as in previous cases. By "massifying" Foucault means transforming into a population with an impetus of a governing mechanism in form of a scientific machinery and apparatus. The scientific mechanism governs the population and concentrating on administrating external devices: such as money, policy making decisions, military technology, education, medical administration, social welfare, criminal and legal legislation, production and industrial output, industrial legislation etc., allowing the population to 'govern themselves'. This power is no longer "directed at man-as-body, but at man-as-species".[24]

Foucault argues that nation states, police, government, legal practices, human sciences and medical institutions have their own rationale, cause and effects, strategies, technologies, mechanisms and codes and have managed successfully in the past to obscure their workings by hiding behind observation and scrutiny. Foucault insists social institutions such as governments, laws, religion, politics, social administration, monetary institutions, military institutions cannot have the same rigorous practices and procedure with claims to independent knowledge like those of the human sciences;such as mathematics, chemistry, astronomy, physics, genetics and the biological sciences.[25] Foucault saw these differences in techniques as nothing more than 'behaviour control technologies', and modern biopower as nothing more than a series of webs and networks working its way around the societal body.

The exercise of power in the service of maximizing life carries a dark underside. When the state is invested in protecting the life of the population, when the stakes are life itself, anything can be justified. Groups identified as the threat to the existence of the life of the nation or of humanity can be eradicated with impunity.

Milieu intérieur and biopower[edit]

Foucault traces how a major political and social project, the Milieu, became interwoven into the political and social relations of men. He takes as his starting point from the 16th century right up until the 18th century with the milieu culminating into the founding disciplines of science, mathematics,[27] political economy and statistics[28][29] The value of secrecy of government (arcana imperii from the Latin which means secrecy of power Secrets of the empire which goes back to the time of the Roman empire in the age of Tacitus), which according to Foucault, had to be incorporated into a politics of truth in form of public opinion[30] through raison d'état.[31] Here the modern version of Government is presented in the national media, both in the electronic medium-television and radio and especially in the written press as the modicum of efficiency, fiscal optimization,responsibility and rigorousness a public discourse and social consensus is emphasized on these four points.What general components that were essential and necessary to make this consensus happen? Foucault traces the first dynamics, the first historical dimensions belonging to the early middle ages.

Foucault notes that the biological “naturalness” of the human species and the new founded scientific interest was developing around not only with the species interaction with milieu and technology, but, most importantly,technology operating as system not as so often portrayed by the political and social sciences which insisted on technology operating as social improvement. Both milieu,natural sciences and technology allied with the characteristics surrounding social organization and increasingly the categorization of the sciences to help deal with this “naturalness” of milieu and of the inscription of truth onto nature. Foucault notices that not only was milieu now a newly discovered scientific biological naturalness ever-present in Lamarckian Biology the notion(biological naturalness), but was actually invented and imported from Newtonian mechanics via Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck.[32] Humans were now both the object of this newly discovered scientific and ‘natural’ truth and new categorization but subjected to it allied by laws,both scientific and natural ‘law’(scientific jurisprudence) the state’s mode of governmental rationality to the will of its population. But, most importantly, interaction with the social environment and social interactions with others and the modern nation state’s interest in the populations well-being and the destructive capability that the state possess in its armoury and it was with the group known as the Physiocrats[33] who continued with the rationalization of this “naturalness”.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Michel Foucault The History of Sexuality Vol 1 p. 140 (1976)
  2. ^ Michel Foucault: Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France 1977-1978 pp. 1–4; see notes on p. 24, notes, 1–4 (2007)
  3. ^ Michel Foucault: Society Must Be Defended Lectures at the Collège de France 1975-1976 p. 243 (2003)
  4. ^ Michel Foucault, (1998) The History of Sexuality Vol. 1: The Will to Knowledge. London: Penguin
  5. ^ Foucault, Michel (1976). The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volume 1. Penguin. pp. 135–161. 
  6. ^ Foucault, Michel (1976). The History Of Sexuality. Penguin. pp. 137–140. 
  7. ^ "Amedeo Policante. "War against Biopower: Timely Reflections on an Historicist Foucault", Theory & Event, 13. 1 March 2010". Retrieved 29 October 2014. 
  8. ^ Michel Foucault The History of Sexuality Vol. 1: The Will to Knowledge. London: Penguin. p. 140 (1998)
  9. ^ Security, Territory, Population p. 1 (2007)
  10. ^ Nature Vol 490 p. 309 2012
  11. ^ Security, Territory, Population pp. 377-378 2007
  12. ^ Security, Territory, Population p. 378 2007
  13. ^ Security, Territory, Population see also note 71 p. 397 2007
  14. ^ The History Of Sexuality Vol 1 p. 139 1976
  15. ^ Security, Territory, Population pp. 363-391 2007
  16. ^ Society Must Be Defended pp. 239-264 (2003)
  17. ^ Security, Territory, Population pp. 363-401 2007
  18. ^ A declaration which offences shall be adjudged treason (25 Edw 3 St 5 c 2) 1351 "When a man does compass or imagine the death of our lord the king, or of our lady his Queen, or their eldest son and heir."
  19. ^ For an excellent account of this legislation see John Barrell Imagining The Kings Death Figurative Treason, Fantasies of Regicide, 1793-1796 (2000)
  20. ^ Security, Territory, Population p. 16 2007
  21. ^ Security, Territory, Population pp. 55-86 2007
  22. ^ Security, Territory, Population pp. 1-27 2007
  23. ^ Security, Territory, Population pp. 163-190 2007
  24. ^ Michel Foucault: Society Must Be Defended Lectures at the Collège de France 1975-1976 p. 243 (2003)
  25. ^ Serge Lang Challenges pp. 1-222 See Chapter Academia, Journalism, and Politics: A Case Study: The Huntington Case (Serge Lang refers to his dispute with Samuel P. Huntington at the National Academy of Sciences) (1998)
  26. ^ The History of Sexuality Volume 1 p. 137
  27. ^ Security, Territory, Population p.296 p.308 Note 14 2007
  28. ^ Security, Territory, Population, p.29-49 2007
  29. ^ Security, Territory, Population pp.55-86 2007
  30. ^ Security, Territory, Population pp.55-86 pp.83-84 Note 27 2007
  31. ^ Security, Territory, Population pp.275-278 p.283 Notes 63-64 2007
  32. ^ Security, Territory, Population pp.20, pp.26-27 Notes 33 and 37 2007
  33. ^ Security, Territory, Population pp.34-53, pp.55-86, p.52 Note 17 2007


  • Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended
  • Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population
  • Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer
  • Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire
  • Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude

Further reading[edit]