Biopolitical Imperialism

Biopolitical Imperialism

by M. G. E. Kelly


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Biopolitical Imperialism is a book about international politics today. The core, eponymous thesis is that our world is marked by a pattern of biopolitical parasitism, that is, the enhancement of the life of wealthy populations of First World countries on the basis of an active denigration of the lives of the poor mass of humanity. The book details how this dynamic plays out both inside wealthy countries and internationally.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781782791324
Publisher: Hunt, John Publishing
Publication date: 07/31/2015
Pages: 165
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

M. G. E. Kelly is Senior Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Communication Arts at the University of Western Sydney.

Read an Excerpt

Biopolitical Imperialism

By M. G. E. Kelly

John Hunt Publishing Ltd.

Copyright © 2014 M. G. E. Kelly
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78279-345-8



In this book, I will argue that, for the last hundred years at least, the people of the wealthiest countries in the world have been united behind their states via systems of care and cultivation — 'biopolitics' — while these same states have actively inhibited the formation of similar biopolitics in the poorest parts of the world. This pattern is what I call 'biopolitical imperialism'. It amounts to the active (though not necessarily deliberate) destruction of the well-being of people in poor countries for the sake of the lives of people in wealthy countries. This formation is particularly distinctive of the late twentieth century, but continues today.

Before proceeding to show how this operates, I will introduce, in this chapter, the key terms in which my argument will be made, in particular the two parts of the eponymous 'biopolitical imperialism'. 'Biopolitics' needs to be explained because many will not be familiar with the concept at all — and even those who are may understand it differently to the way I will use it. 'Imperialism' is a word with more common currency, but it has multiple senses, and I use it here in quite a specific way.

0.1 Biopolitics

The word 'biopolitics' dates back to the early twentieth century. The usage of the term in the contemporary academic humanities and social sciences, the context in which I write, however relates specifically to Michel Foucault's idiosyncratic usage of it in seminal work from 1976, namely the first volume of his History of Sexuality and his lecture series Society Must Be Defended. Foucault's usage has given rise in turn to tangentially related usages of the concept by three Italian philosophers in particular: Giorgio Agamben, Roberto Esposito, and Antonio Negri.

I will use the word specifically in the sense given to it by Foucault in 1976, not in the senses developed by later theorists. If there is an essential difference between Foucault's definition of the concept and those of its Italian adopters, it can be found in the etymological elaboration of the term, specifically in the determination of meaning of the prefix 'bio-'. Contemporary interpreters tend to trace this directly to its Greek root, bios, which is translatable as life, specifically human life. They thus define biopolitics as the politics of human life. However, it is then not obvious what distinguishes it from politics simpliciter, since there is no politics which does not relate directly to human life. This leads on the one hand to Agamben's identification of biopolitics with the entire history of Western politics, and on the other to the arbitrary use of the concept by Negri to mean any contemporary politics of resistance. These definitions render the concept useless, reducing it to a trendy buzzword.

Foucault by contrast gave the word a more — though not entirely — precise definition. In his usage, the 'bio-' of biopolitics is a contraction of 'biological'. For him, biopolitics arose when scientific reflection on life met politics. Biopolitics means government that takes into account the lives of people as a systematic calculation, utilising scientific knowledge.

Before the biopolitical era, in the medieval and early modern period, rulers did not do this. Monarchs only exceptionally levied taxes or conducted surveys, occasionally called people to fight for them, and occasionally slaughtered them when they displeased them. There was no science to such rule, only brutal technique.

Today, by contrast, governments in the 'advanced' countries monitor more or less everybody, in order ostensibly to ensure their well-being. This monitoring began in efforts to alleviate disease, to avert the national economic and military decline disease could precipitate. Dealing with disease effectively requires an approach that takes in the whole population. Later, proto-economists posited a direct correlation of the number of people in a country to its wealth, motivating governmental interventions to regulate the size of the population through measures other than disease control. This led to a constitution of the population as an object of government attention, and a genuine concern with its well-being becoming central to governing practice.

Biopolitics is a form of power that controls by using scientific knowledge to care for and enhance the lives of entire populations. In biopolitical societies, our health is looked after, not as a matter of pure charitable concern (though this is part of the story), but in order to enhance the power of the state and the wealthy. That is not to cast biopolitics in an exclusively negative light, however: it would seem to benefit everyone. Moreover it is not simply imposed from above, but is something actively fought for and brought about by the efforts of ordinary people. It should indeed be understood as coming into being through complex mutual incitement, involving antagonistic struggle between different social forces.

This process does have its dark side. Foucault claims that, by producing a coherent population, biopolitics ushers in an era of unprecedentedly bloody warfare, in which entire populations are pitted against each other in an apparent struggle for survival. Rather than clashes between armies, we see 'total war', with millions of men under arms and the destruction of entire cities behind the lines. This, for Foucault, is made possible in biopolitics on the basis of an incipient 'state racism' which mediates between the politics of death and that of life, justifying the death of others for the sake of the health of the population. It is in this way, I will argue, that biopolitical imperialism operates.

0.2 Imperialism

In its ordinary sense, 'imperialism' means the creation of empires, as seen in the late nineteenth century, when every great power sought to acquire colonies. 'Colonialism' is the word I will use to refer to this phenomenon, reserving 'imperialism' for something more specific, namely a sense of the word developed by Marxists, most influentially — though by no means originally — by Lenin, who, as leader of the Russian Revolution, became the defining thinker of twentieth century Marxism.

The word 'colonial' comes from the Latin colonia, colonial settlements in the Roman Empire composed of former soldiers, established as a means of controlling conquered areas, while also providing an incentive to soldiers to fight to conquer these areas. This colonialism, settlement of conquered territories, appropriation of land for farming, enslavement of local inhabitants, was also the main pattern of European imperial expansion from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, but European expansion during the nineteenth century was so extensive it also created 'colonies' where no serious attempt to colonise was made, namely in South and South-East Asia, and West Africa. Certainly significant numbers of Europeans did settle in these regions, but settlement was not the point of this colonisation, and the Europeans were always greatly outnumbered by indigenous inhabitants. The point was rather primarily commercial and sometimes military: it was to open markets to trade, plunder natural resources, and to prevent other Europeans from doing the same.

The word 'imperialism', on the other hand, was used by Lenin to refer to a distinctive economic phenomenon that occurred during this colonial period: a change in capitalism from the dominance of industrial capital (that is, making money by producing and selling things) to the dominance of finance capital (making money from money by investing it). For Lenin the decisive shift occurred at the beginning of the twentieth century. Empire had initially been about capturing goods and land, had then become a means for securing captive markets to sell one's goods, but now became financialised, a matter of securing investment opportunities. As it turned out, this shift would make colonialism redundant.

The decline of European colonial empires had multiple causes. Certainly, it could not have happened without the resistance of the colonised, which grew to a point where it made colonialism unprofitable in many regions. A factor in the opposite direction was the exhaustion of European powers in two massive conflagrations, which meant they had fewer reserves to impose their will on other lands. This catalysed the emergence and growth of a Communist bloc which supported antiimperialist struggles materially and ideologically. In this context, the idea that colonialism was unjust became hegemonic. This idea took hold not only because of the rise of Communism, but partly because of the newly dominant influence of America after the Second World War. As a state which itself threw off British colonial rule, America has presented itself as having a different attitude to colonialism; although it itself seized colonies from Spain at the end of the nineteenth century, it allowed its largest overseas colony, the Philippines, to become independent during the twentieth. America's opposition to colonialism was as much pragmatic as principled, however: it could not allow its minor partners to maintain vast global empires. After all, the purpose of European colonial empires had always largely been to achieve monopolies for the power's companies, and America now wanted favoured access to all markets for itself. Effectively, the Monroe Doctrine, by which the US had opposed any European colonialism in Central and South America, was now applied to the entire world.

This confluence of factors meant that, between the end of World War Two and the 1960s, European powers were forced to withdraw wholesale from their colonial possessions. Only Portugal retained substantial territorial colonies after this time, fighting costly protracted wars leading in 1974 to a metropolitan revolution and a new regime that abandoned empire. There had been an earlier mass loss of European colonial possessions, namely in the Americas: between the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 and Independence of Brazil in 1822, the great majority of the New World passed from European suzerainty to independence. The difference between the two bouts of decolonisation is that in the earlier case — except in Haiti — local power was won by ethnic European settlers, whereas in twentieth century decolonisation, political power passed, at least officially, to native elites, not least because most of the colonies concerned had not been settler colonies.

Decolonisation has not led to an end of imperialism in Lenin's sense, however. Rather, finance capital has clearly become ever more dominant. Twentieth century decolonisation was military and political, but did not necessarily involve divestment of economic influence. While many former colonies did attempt to curtail the commercial operations of imperialist powers, over the last half century the barriers to exploitative imperialist economic relations have been worn down again almost everywhere. Thus, formal decolonisation conceals continuing economic dependency and subjugation. The post-colonial order by now amounts to a victory for imperialism: the expense of maintaining the boots on the ground has been largely dispensed with, while the economic benefits continue to flow to the old imperial powers.

Lenin characterises imperialism as a form of parasitism, in which the imperialist nation lives off its colonies. In this much it resembles a common image of the capitalist ruling class living parasitically off the labour of the workers within its own country. The surprising thing in Lenin's picture of imperialism, repressed by most contemporary readers, is that he characterises not just the ruling class of the imperialist nation as parasitic, but the imperialist nation itself, potentially including its working class. While the workers inside a country are exploited by their employers, the workers of the colonies are super-exploited, suffering additional exploitation, which accrues potentially not only to the imperialist elite, but to most of the population of the imperialist metropole. Lenin is particularly influenced here by the English liberal economist John A. Hobson, who envisions an elite of massively wealthy rentiers living off the profit generated by imperialism and employing much of the rest of the population of their country to service their needs, the latter living the life of pampered servants, accomplices cut in on the imperialist deal, with a federation of Western states combining together to exploit the rest of the world. Lenin argued that this would happen were it not for the considerable resistance imperialism occasioned. However, with the increasing circumvention of this resistance in the course of the twentieth century precisely via the tactic of decolonisation, I would argue that this scenario has been at least partially realised in Western countries in which the finance sector has become the heart of the economy, and the service sector the one in which most people actually work. The UK is a case in point here: in less than a century it went from being the industrial powerhouse of the world, to a country which produces relatively little.

One means by which ordinary people in the First World benefit from imperialism, not explicitly recognised by Lenin, is illuminated by Arghiri Emmanuel's unequal exchange thesis. This, stated simply, says that super-exploitation occurs due to wage differentials. An average Indian worker earns perhaps 1% of what a Western worker does for the same amount of work. The Western worker may thus purchase a hundred days of the Indian's labour for only one day of his own labour. Such a trade is rarely made explicitly, but every time a Western worker buys something made in India, she gets an effective 99% discount on the manufacturing labour component of the price. Conversely, if an Indian buys something made in the West, she must pay a hundred times more for the Western labour embodied in it than her own labour is worth.

There are many reasons why the First World is wealthier than poor countries: firstly, and most anciently, primitive acquisition — effectively simple theft — of resources, which still occurs today to some extent; unequal exchange, secured on the basis of technological advantage, some goods being available only from advanced countries, hence being able to command grossly inflated prices; military might, used to enforce disadvantageous trading conditions — the possibility of such force being itself largely premised on a technological disparity; the financialisation of the global economy, by which rents have displaced trade as a major driver of advanced economies; and lastly, as an effect of this, the running of continuous current account deficits based on the perceived desirability of supporting First World debts, allowing the importation of even more goods than it is possible to acquire through primitive acquisition and unequal exchange. Each of these engines can be said to be unsustainable to some degree. Technological and (hence) military advantage can be eroded in various ways, and at some point mountains of debt may come crashing down. These phenomena may stand or fall together: debt obligations can only be enforced while the imperialist countries maintain a towering power advantage.

0.3 Global Divisions

Some argue today that the notion of 'imperialism' is out-dated, since imperialism has been superseded by 'globalisation', the erosion of national boundaries in relation to commerce and migration, meaning that there is no clear division between centre and periphery. At the turn of the millennium, this argument was perhaps more prominent than today, its key text provided by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Empire. With America's 2003 invasion of Iraq in the face of protests from much of the world, however, even Hardt and Negri were forced to reconsider their thesis, rumours of imperialism's demise seeming suddenly exaggerated.

Certainly, in the century since Lenin wrote, the extent towhich there are distinct national capitals has declined: the capitalists of a given country no longer unite to the same extent to compete against capitalists from elsewhere. In Europe in particular there has been a sea change from murderous competition between nations to commercial integration. This is in no small part due to the spread of ownership of companies across national borders. The extent of this transnationalisation of capital is often exaggerated, however: so called transnational corporations (TNCs) may operate across many borders, but they are usually attached to one or at most a couple of countries in the primary location of their ownership and management (even if their taxes are filed elsewhere). We may refer to two different transnationalisations: a genuine globalisation of the operations of many corporations, while the headquarters and shareholders have been transnationalised to a lesser extent, remaining largely within the First World, though there are increasingly exceptions to this pattern. Via the second transnationalisation, the First World increasingly operates like a cohesive whole (though national differences stubbornly remain within this on certain questions), a tendency Karl Kautsky dubbed 'ultraimperialism'. This clubbing together to dominate the world dates back to the victory in the Second World War of an alliance of capitalist powers, that went on to constitute itself after the war as the OECD and Nato, joining forces with its defeated adversaries Japan and Germany to compose a bloc against international Communism. The end of the Cold War saw this agglomeration globally triumphant and expansive. Today, the richest states have cosy reciprocal relations with one another, maintaining a relationship of collective parasitism with the rest of the world. Multiple tendencies threaten this pattern, however, as is always the case in any complex social formation.


Excerpted from Biopolitical Imperialism by M. G. E. Kelly. Copyright © 2014 M. G. E. Kelly. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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Table of Contents

1 Prologue 1

0 Toolkit 6

0.1 Biopolitics 6

0.2 Imperialism 8

0.3 Global Divisions 13

0.4 Biopolitical Imperialism 17

0.5 Methodology 19

1 Nation 22

1.1 Docile Populations 22

1.2 Biopolitical Nationalism 25

1.3 Racism 29

1.4 Post-racialRacism 34

1.5 Other Exclusions 38

2 Border 43

2.1 Anti-Immigrationism 43

2.2 Biopolitical Borders 53

2.3 World Borders 59

3 Traffic 63

3.1 Demographic Incline 63

3.2 Offshoring 66

3.3 Trading Health 69

3.4 Refugees 71

3.5 Land and Food 75

4 Aid 80

4.1 Paradoxes of Development 81

4.2 Fostering Biopolitics 88

4.3 Development Despite Development 91

4.4 Domestic Dependency? 99

5 War 102

5.1 Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan 102

5.2 Iraq and the Levant 119

5.3 Death Trade 123

5.4 Environmental Devastation 123

6 Resistance 127

6.1 Neoliberalism 128

6.2 Beyond Imperialism 131

6.3 Globalise Biopolitics 139

6.4 Beyond Biopolitics? 142

Notes 145

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