One of the important consequences of the fight against the coronavirus pandemic was the revival of expert discussions in various countries about the new relevance of biopower and biogovernance concepts. They were reflected during the discussions at the 17th Annual Meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club.
The term "biopower" is by no means new. It was already developed several decades ago in sufficient detail by the famous French thinker Michel Foucault. On the one hand, when Foucault used this term, much of what he discussed concerned the authorities’ power to control sexuality, the body and the reproduction of the population. From this point of view, “biopower” is a tool for regulating sexual behavior, and often a repressive tool. But beyond that, Foucault drew attention to the broader problems associated with biopower. They also concerned public health organisations. In this context, the regulation of the physical health of citizens (often not in an optimal way) for the solution of certain administrative tasks of the authorities (including, according to Foucault, those related to the economic and social subordination of citizens) became one of the important areas in which biopower came to the fore in the framework of strategies for domination of government over society.
According to this logic, Michel Foucault viewed biopower as one of the state's techniques for creating what he called "disciplinary institutions". Foucault spoke of public hospitals as among a number of key disciplinary institutions along with schools, dormitories, workers' quarters, barracks, prisons, etc. Thus, the norms needed by the authorities were implicitly encoded into accepted social practices of behaviour, which therefore were often no longer viewed as imposed on society, but as originally inherent in it. Thus, "biogovernance" helped the authorities keep the society in a necessary state of submission, which lacked accusations of open exploitation or neglect. As a result, according to Foucault, “ the basic biological features of the human species became the object of a political strategy, of a general strategy of power”.
This political strategy of biopower, according to Foucault, is expressed both in the creation and consolidation of the corresponding myths and narratives in the general public consciousness, which then by themselves begin to determine and "discipline" a person's life in the desired direction. From this, Foucault, known for his critical attitude, used the term "biopolitical state racism". At the same time, racism was no longer understood in its ethnic meaning, but as an instrument for suppressing individuality through the practice of dominant “massification”.
Thus, Foucault directly linked biopower with the restriction and violation of the rights of the individual. After Foucault, his theory was actively developed by another well-known philosopher, Giorgio Agamben and a number of other authors.
Over the years, Michel Foucault's concept of biopower had a definite impact on the human rights discourse. But until very recently, it was used in the narratives of political protest mainly in its narrow sense, in relation to the protection of the rights of sexual minorities. At the same time, the broader context of biopower as a political technology disciplining society within the framework necessary for power was not actively used in political struggles, and was perceived rather as an implicit dystopia, than as an object for protest. So, biopower, until recently, by and large remained just a theory, beautiful and pretentious, like many constructions of Michel Foucault, but not of primary importance for the real political practices of submission and protest.
However, all that changed with the coronavirus pandemic. The realities of the current pandemic, associated with the organisation of various kinds of lockdowns and quarantines, and the collapse of international transport links have ushered in a fundamentally new stage in the understanding of biopower. All of its dystopian constructions very quickly passed from theory to everyday reality.
At the same time, the tradition of employing an extremely critical understanding of biopower as an instrument of domination and suppression, which comes from Foucault, was reflected in the assessment of the pandemic. According to this logic, the danger posed by the coronavirus to society was defined primarily not as the appearance of a terrible new disease, but as provoking outrageous dystopian governance decisions by the authorities. This made it possible to bring biopower to a fundamentally higher level of subordination. The same Giorgio Agamben, in a number of his speeches, was practically on the verge of “covid-denial” and declared that the epidemic was “invented” by the authorities to consolidate its suppressive practices. This looks outwardly paradoxical, but it fits well into the critical tradition of Foucault: it is a postulate that the struggle of the authorities against the epidemic does more harm to society than the epidemic itself. We agree that at a humbled everyday level, far from the lofty theories of Foucault and Agamben, such an approach is quite common in public opinion, albeit in the format of everyday conversations on social networks.
At the same time, it is obvious that at this stage, in their most detailed and “advanced” form, these biocontrol concepts are primarily related to the national, intrastate level. It is the state, by the power of its powers, that establishes these or those administrative regimes associated with ensuring biopower. Each state establishes its own quarantine regimes, its own levels of restriction of human rights due to the epidemic, its own levels of economic assistance, its own medical protocols, its own regimes for admitting foreigners to its territory, etc.