What is Biopower?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

French philosopher Michel Foucault first used the term biopower to describe a way in which a state can exert total control over its constituents. His work on this matter in the 20th century has been termed post-structuralist or deconstructionist in nature. In addition to his formulation of the theory of biopower, Foucault became an interesting critic of literature and of his time, though his texts are very difficult reading for the beginning student of post-structuralism.

Philosopher Michael Foucault was the first to describe biopower.
Philosopher Michael Foucault was the first to describe biopower.

Biopower, Foucault argued, was the way in which capitalist states exerted control over people to better promote life. Major means of control were through statistics and probabilities. States, meaning countries, analyzed likely responses to actions by the government and ways in which people could most probably be controlled and directed in all aspects of life. Even in a democratic state, this marriage of the social sciences to political sciences affects a high degree of control over a population, as Foucault claims.

Taken to the extreme, biopower includes eugenic and removing "undesirables" from a population.
Taken to the extreme, biopower includes eugenic and removing "undesirables" from a population.

Power such as that suggested in biopower is used for the good of the state to protect the lives of its people. Such things as managing medical care might be part of a state employing biopower ruling techniques. However, Foucault takes this further, suggesting that best control can be achieved through eugenics. Eugenics is the theory rife with racism and classism, where humans apply the concepts of natural selection to benefit the human race. Thus those with traits undesirable to the society are selected out, by not allowing people with poor backgrounds or significant health issues to reproduce.

The theories of eugenics, especially when we are so close to cloning and other forms of genetic engineering, are frightening to more than a few people. Writers and philosophers have deplored the concept of scientific selection for reproduction for many decades, with perhaps the best recent criticism of this form of reproduction being the film, Gattaca. The most classic criticism of eugenics is the novel 1984.

As well as employing population control through selective reproduction, protection of the state in order to maintain power is an essential portion of biopower. This includes the destruction of any threatening elements to the state and justifies any actions taken by the state.

An example of this type of biopower can be evaluated by the current US relationship to several Arabic nations. There are some that argue that the best action would be to destroy all Arabic nations and rid the world thus of terrorism. This is biopower in its most ugly and extreme form, and it is justifiable according to the concepts of Foucault. Such an exercise has been seen before in history in the mass extermination of Jews during WWII and in the more recent mass genocides in the Sudan.

Those committing such genocide believe they are acting for the good of the state. However, most believe that the ultimate good of the state is to have working and cooperative relationships with all nations. Biopower would not endorse such a theory, since selective reproduction would be more difficult to control under arrangements allowing for diversity.

In Foucault’s view, biopower is the natural trend away from sovereign states that governed by threatening death to opposers or those who would not obey the law. However, we see both biopower and “threat of death” power in most countries, regardless of their political structure.

That Foucault identifies and names biopower should not be taken as endorsement of behaviors associated with such. This is a philosophy based on observation, and does not necessarily represent personal views. Post-structuralist theory has sometimes been labeled as fascist, and it is difficult not to get upset at the thought of biopower being used as justification for genocide.

However, the goal of the post-structuralist is to force individuals far out of their comfort zones and create a multiplicity of meaning. Such theorists often wish to provoke controversy, as they believe this will result in actual thinking regarding how the world works and is viewed. Foucault’s theories on biopower should not be taken quite at face value, as they are extremely complex.

An example of basic biopower is a state's control of medical care management.
An example of basic biopower is a state's control of medical care management.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


Galton and eugenics. Eugenics is the better breeding of plants, animals and humans. We are already doing this by developing medical science to ensure we can breed healthier babies. Eugenics is not bad, just the interpretation is a bit like holy texts -- good unless mistaken.


This concept seems to describe humanity and human institutions as an evolutionary term that relates back to the herd instinct and necessities for survival and new birth.



Nevertheless, the marriage of evolutionary principles of survival of the fittest and government or social studies necessarily produced a social darwinistic program of eugenics, which is dangerous and was used by dangerous characters like Hitler to pursue a nation-wide program of insanity and mass murder.


This article is quite misleading. Bio-power is not wielded by any state. It is held simultaneously by everyone and no-one and is recognized through a series of interdependent institutions that arose at a similar time to capitalism.

It did not come about as a way for capitalist states to control population, but instead flourished due to the economic necessities of the time and the need for "docile bodies geared toward productive utility."

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