Developing Biopower out of Foucault



Part 1 [the Political Constitution of the Present]

Section 1.2 – Biopolitical Production:

pp. 22-42:



The Emergence of Biopower. Negri and Hardt point to the work of Foucault and particularly to his work that outlines a change from a “disciplinary social construct” to a”society of control.” That is to say, no longer does society punish the body directly (be it in the form of corporal punishment, public execution/torture, the deprivation for a variety of lesser crimes i.e. debtors prison etc. and the conditions of the asylum). Rather society, in a paradigm of the “society in control” is seeking to “produce bodies.” This is what is a t the heart of Foucault’s concept of biopower, and is what Negri and Hardt outline in some detail in their argument as presented in Empire.
For instance they write:

Disciplinary society is that society in which social command is constructed through a diffuse network of dispotifs or apparatuses that produce and regulate customs, habits, and productive practices (p.23).

Still surmising the work of Foucault, Negri and Hardt offer that the key defining aspect or distinguishing feature of a disciplinary society is that it’s institution and structure provide the boundary or limits of conformity. Or as Negri and Hardt paraphrase: “Disciplinary power rules in effect by structuring the parameters and limits of thought and practice, sanctioning and prescribing normal and/or deviant behaviors” (p.23).

Teaser Quote

“Today I would say that “The Internet,” but even more so “The Internet of Things,” is crucial to the production of society and given this is an online article that fact remains self evident.”


Historically, Negri and Hardt suggest that the “society of control” emerges during the “modern” period and develops throughout “post-modernity.” Undoubtedly, this placing is imprecise, however it does demonstrate that the history we are essentially tracking here is based on/around the intersection of cognition, technological advancement and shifts in ontological/epistemological framings. In other words, Negri and Hardt are outlining a shift in thought form that occurred over a period of time. Importantly, throughout both of Foucault’s major projects (the Archaeology and the Genealogy) the implicit and explicit power relationships play a major role. This is evident and center stage here when discussing the shift from disciplinary power to the society of control and Negri and Hardt work to highlight this. They write:

The behaviors of social integration and the exclusion proper to rule are thus increasingly interiorized within subjects themselves. Power is now exercised through machines that directly organize the brain (in communication systems, information networks etc.) and bodies (in welfare systems, monitored activities, etc.) towards a state of autonomous alienation from the sense of life and the desire for creativity (p.23).


Keep in mind here that the Foucauldian oeuvre reminds us continually that power is contested.  Thus, just as with the shift itself out of disciplinary power, the society of control is one in which power relations are in a constant state of flux. Nonetheless, power has to have some basis in reality and in a more advanced course we would at this point, tangent off into a discussion of Social Capital, both from Bourdieu and Zizek’s perspectives. For now we will have to settle for a rather unsatisfying answer. However, it is an answer we will get a chance to unpack and examine in some detail. The essential reality that those who (whomever they may be at each particular point in time) control the power relationships is peer pressure.

To put it another way, the society of control is obsessed with what constitutes normality, normal height, weight, finger length. Average life span, diet, eye color. The society of control tracks movement, watches macro-social behavioral patters and learns more and more each day about the habits and standards of acting/responding. This form of control becomes power (knowledge in power sort of thing) and this is what Foucault called Bio power. Negri and Hardt write:

Bio power is a form of power that regulates social life from its interior, following it, interpreting it, absorbing it; and re articulating it. Power can achieve an effective command over the entire life of the population only when it becomes and integral, vital function that ever individual embraces and reactivates of his or her own account (pp. 23-24).


It is important to highlight here that the society of control is immersive. As opposed to the former disciplinary model, biopower works on the body of the society as opposed to the body of the individual. Again here, we can branch off into discussions concerning the development of utilitarianism and discuss how that fits into this model, in particular as a philosophic foundation.

One key aspect  of Negri and Hardt’s argument regarding the production of biopower is the role of globalization and the functionality of technology. This is important in the sense that the civic world that existed during the disciplinary power structure has now become diffused throughout not only the state, but the “global village” as well. If we take an example, we may look at Facebook and see how interconnected we have become as individuals yet we struggle to identify at the same time a clear community structure.

This is further emphasized when we take into account some of the less sociable aspects of new media and social media. Here for instance an algorithm that can be used to track your personal search history can be captured and sold as data corporation which then has a greater capacity to specifically target its advertising. Here we also see the role of money in connection with this form of social structuring.


Now we need to ASK THE IMPORTANT QUESTION: WHY? Why study Negri and Hardt? Why are Negri and Hardt relevant to the study of Justice? Negri and Hardy are an interesting and curious duo for sure. Negri for instance, was in prison when this book was written, charged with a number of acts of terrorism (this is related to Operation Gladio which is yet another vector on this same plane). There is much more to the story of course, and Negri’s incarceration shouldn’t deter you from reading and understanding this important work. Additionally, the unusual circumstances of the books production highlights the way in which technology has continued to have an amazing impact upon our everyday lives.

I would even hesitate to go as far as saying that Hardt was given a unique position due to his co-workers situation to offer a new perspective on social formation. The second question  is the IMPORTANT ONE though: how is this book connected to our interrogation of the concept of justice? Empire offers at a broad level a critique of capitalism as facilitated through globalism. Whether we ultimately agree or disagree is a moot point, as the critique itself allows us to see a perspective we’d be otherwise too immersed in, too truly appreciate.


In particular though, their exposition of biopower is important, as biopower is the state technology which currently permeates the social norms of our society, and thus is a key facilitator in the production of justice. Negri and Hardt outline how the biopolitical context thus becomes central to their argument. They write:

…the biopolitical context of the new paradigm is completely central to our analysis. This is what presents power with an alternative, not only between obedience and disobedience, or between formal political participation and refusal, but also along the entire range of life and death, wealth and poverty, production and social reproduction and so forth (p.26).


In this way, what we essentially arrive at is a dichotomy. Generally we should be weary of dichotomies and this is no expectation. However, the distinction that is created here is useful as a model. So we have on one hand a disciplinary state that seeks to exclude life vs on the other a state within a society of control or a biopower state which seeks to “produce life.” This is then the fundamental axiom of Biopower, it is the mechanism through which the state can produce life.

Negri and Hardt’s exposition of the production of/and life begins with a critique (a very brief critique) of the foundational work Foucault had developed in relation to biopower. It’s important to keep in mind that Foucault is indeed the progenitor of this field of inquiry, and as Negri and Hardt highlight here is that this is almost an accident of his prior research.


There is an argument to be made here that Foucault could be considered among the canon of psychoanalytic work. This is due to his exposition of Nietzsche first and foremost who paved some of the road that Freud would later tread, and then later using The Invasion of Compulsory Sex Morality a book by Freud apostle Wilhelm Reich, for the basis of his history of sexuality. Therefore, and in particular with biopower, it can be understood as a psychoanalysis of the systems of society through which individuals are able to “play the (set) of games” that constituted power in culture.

It is thus my own personal view is that Foucault was implicitly doing a psychoanalytical project in the same vein as Zizek et al., however as we never explicitly stated this Foucault cannot yet be named a psychoanalyst. I bring this up because often we are going to struggle to really pin down the systems of thought that Foucault used. NEgri and Hardt suggest that his work on Biopower was heavily influenced through a structuralist framework. This is perhaps arguable. However, this interpretation is not controversial. There is plenty of evidence in Foucault’s work that really highlights how he has used a structuralist method.


OK. So please keep in mind as we continue to discuss and approach this critique and also as we work through Foucault, that he is very modular, i.e. each project Foucault has done in many ways attempts to use a range of perspectives. Today we might call that an interdisciplinary approach.  That said, I am not sure that we can really get away with the argument that Foucault was “interdisciplinary.” Foucault though, can easily be called a “Structuralist” without too much difficulty.

So, what do Negri and Hardt write about Foucault’s structuralist limitations:

By structuralist epistemology here we mean the reinvention of a functionalist analysis in the realm of human sciences, a method that effectively sacrifices the dynamic of the system, the creative temporality of its movements, and the ontological substance of cultural and social reproduction. In fact, if at this point we were to ask Foucault who or what drives the system, or rather, who is the “bios?” His response would be ineffable, or nothing at all. What Foucault fails to grasp finally are the real dynamics of production in a biopolitical society (p. 28).


This is quite a damning statement in regards to Foucault’s work, yet as I prefaced Foucault can be (and is) read as modular. SO here I suggest what we take away from this is a break from the preceding scholarship rather than an attack on Foucault. Here again we could go into much more depth on the development of Foucauldian Discourse Analysis and arrive at our own position as to whether Foucault failed to fully embrace social and cultural dynamics. Nonetheless, in regard to biopower and especially biopolitics Negri and Hardt make a good case for moving beyond Foucault. They are particularly interested in these dynamics they find lacking in preceding scholarship and as such move to Deleuze and Guattari in order to resolve some of these issues or gaps.

Now Deleuze and Guattari are also a curious duo in their own right and position themselves alongside but ultimately  outside other French sociology. They largely play by their own rules and as such can be misinterpreted as Zizek famously has done. Negri and Hardt employ Deleuze and Guattari for their poststructuralist analysis and specifically in the search for the production of the “social being” (p.28). Yet even here they are unsatisfied with this analysis. Essentially in their through line, they trace the developing articulation of social production, namely “creative production, production of value, social relations, affects [and] becomings” (p.28), as they began to emerge in this literature.


So leaving the structuralist/poststructuralist modern/postmodern debates aside, Negri and Hardt are highlighting how difficult it was to articulate and outline social production in a social system with so many divergent an diverse influences through technology, globalization, capitalism etc. I want to highlight one aspect of political history here that I feel is relevant to this discussion. That is the collapse of the Soviet Empire. This, much like perhaps 9/11 would later be, was a distinct “before and after” moment in history. Importantly both Foucault and Deleuze/Guattari wrote before and Negri and Hardt wrote after. In that mix we might also throw in the development of the internet although given that it was only really beginning to be adopted between say 1995 and 2003, and the Napster explosion didn’t happen until late in 1999, this I feel that this has much less relevance in Negri and Hardt’s argument.

Today I would say that the internet but even more so “The Internet of Things” is crucial to the production of society and given this is an online article that fact remains self evident.


Essentially, one of the problems that Negri and Hardt outline but do not name is the role of emergence in our contemporary and highly interconnected world. Taking a Marxist approach allows them to identify that the issue of exploitation has become more opaque in a biopolitical sphere and as such their existing theories of value (both Marxist and otherwise) become inadequate in approaching the question of power and it’s development in the society of control. Focusing for instance on the role of labor in the early twenty first century they write:

The immediately social dimension of the exploitation of living immaterial labour immerses labour in all the relationship elements that define the social but also at the same time activate the critical elements that develop the potential of insubordination and revolt through the entire set of labouring practices. After a new theory of value, then, a new theory of subjectivity must be formulated that operates primarily through knowledge, communication and language (p. 29).

Ironically enough, this is going to bring us back to Foucault but also writers and linguists such as Wittgenstein who will outline that language is vital in regard to determining and shaping our thoughts…



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