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date: 22 April 2024

Biopower and International Relationsfree

Biopower and International Relationsfree

  • Angélica Guerra-BarónAngélica Guerra-BarónSchool of Law, Universidad Científica del Sur (Lima)


Michel Foucault’s critical approach to understanding power has become very influential in the study of global politics, especially in the work of (critical) IR scholars. The Foucauldian kind of power conception has influenced some IR scholars who adopt key insights from post-structuralist theory to world politics, thus producing an analytical orientation in the sense that all reality is structured first by language with discourses, then creating a coherent system of knowledge, objects, and subjects. Of particular importance is Foucault’s notion of biopower, biopolitics, and technology of power. Such a toolbox allows (critical) IR scholars to recur and distinguish disciplinary power, governmentality, its types (liberalism, neoliberalism), and biopolitics itself. However, few IR studies differentiate between biopower and biopolitics; yet an extensive variety of international studies issues are analyzed. Additionally, applying Foucault’s notions to global politics has been roundly criticized.


  • International Relations Theory

Updated in this version

Updates to sections "Biopolitical Production" and "Further Research." Citations and bibliography updated.


International relations (IR) scholars influenced by a Foulcaldian approach to power wonder how it links with truth and subjectivity and how those notions are interconnected through discourse and practices doing so mainly through critical theory. So they explore issues such as subjectivities, its production, and resistance to power relations.

Foucault’s ideas shed light on how different forms of power and their respective mechanisms overlap in social life. In so doing, he identifies older forms of power (sovereign, pastoral, disciplinary) and a newer one called biopower, along with the particular mechanisms (techniques) to exercise it.

Biopower is a technology of power concerned with the global mass as a biological, political, and scientific problem immersed in power relations (Foucault, 2003). It is an ensemble of institutions, procedures, analyses, reflections, calculations, and tactics that allow a complex power to be exercised with its target as the population at large (Foucault, 2007). It may be managed and controlled to maximize its capacities. Thus, biopower works as an umbrella concept as it embraces these technologies of power.

Biopolitics is more empirically oriented, as it focuses on specific strategies and practices embedded in relations of power, truth, and subjectivity—not on theoretical constructions or doctrines.

In addition to biopolitics as a form of analysis, there is an analytical approach known as governmentality. It is concerned with all narratives, practices, and sorts of processes that aim to balance the population itself (birth, death, health, illness) as well as with social, cultural, environmental, economic, and geographic conditions. Governmentality analysis adopts a methodology that takes into account specific practices that not only go beyond the state as a unit, but emerge within social fields such as the state, the market, and population.

The dynamics of the 20th and 21st centuries have facilitated the understanding of biopower and its two basic forms of exercising power over life: one individually on the human body through techniques and disciplines designed to optimize capacities (anatomo-politics), and the other one on the population as a whole (biopolitics).

Few studies differentiate between biopower and biopolitics; however an extensive variety of international studies issues are analyzed under those headings. These particularly include topics such as global governance, defense and security, gender studies, trade and financial factors, the environment, human security, global politics and resistance, global civil society, post-territorial political communities, citizenship and biometrics, molecular security, and the modern food economy.

This article begins with a discussion of biopower and biopolitcs. It continues with a discussion of the debates in the IR literature on biopower and illustrations of works of IR scholarship that draw on biopower and governmentality for insight into global politics. The article ends with some reflections and further research.

Biopower and Biopolitics

Foucault develops the classic theory of sovereignty that Hobbes (1985, 1998, 1999) and Schmitt (2005, 2007) characterized as having within it the possibility that the state decides when to take away life or put someone to death (Debrix & Barder, 2009). In so doing, Foucault highlights how sovereign power was enacted by monarchs over their servants: the right of life and death (i.e., the “right to kill”; Foucault, 2003, p. 240).

In Society Must Be Defended (2003), Foucault shows how during the 18th and 19th centuries, techniques of power were acted upon the body of the individual through alignment, separation, serialization, and surveillance. This technique of power addressed to bodies directly (individual subjects) coexists with a power exercised over “the living man . . . man-as-species.”

Thus it is possible to identify biopower as another form of power that coexists with sovereign power, since the 19th century is a power to “‘make’ live and ‘let’ die” (Foucault, 2003, p. 241). This technology of power aims to make a positive influence on life through purposeful mechanisms such as control and regulation (Foucault, 1978).

Both sovereign power and biopower are exercised through different strategies that focus on particular targets. Human bodies were objects of control through disciplinary mechanisms (anatomo-politics) alongside other mechanisms focusing on biological processes such as propagation, birth, mortality, level of health, life expectancy, and longevity. Thus, a population itself was intervened on through sexuality, reproduction, disease, and deviancy (Foucault, 1978). In that sense, population is placed between discipline and biopolitics, as it can be “observed and surveyed and possibly remedied or treated” (Legg, 2005, p. 142).

Biopower, then, is a technology of power concerned with the global mass as a biological, political, and scientific problem (Foucault, 2003) immersed in power relations wherein the population becomes a new target to be administered to, intervened on, and controlled through different schemes called governmentalities (laissez-faire, social welfare, neoliberal, and neoconservative as such).

Therefore, more sophisticated forms of surveillance were conducted, such as hierarchies and inspections (Foucault, 2003, pp. 240–242), under the heading of biopower—a new objective with a new rationality aimed to increase forces, not destroy them (Oksala, 2013, p. 321).

So far, some of the insights already mentioned have helped to establish the relationship between biopower and biopolitics; however, it is worthwhile to first disentangle the highly interconnected concepts. Hannah (2011) brings in Rabinow and Rose’s work (2006) to clarify what is meant and what lies behind biopower and biopolitics. While biopower is a discursive-practical “field comprised of more or less rationalized attempts to intervene upon the vital characteristics of human existence,” biopolitics “embrace[s] all the specific strategies and contestations over problematizations of collective human vitality, morbidity and mortality; over the forms of knowledge, regimes of authority and practices of intervention that are desirable, legitimate and efficacious” (Rabinow & Rose, 2006, pp. 196–197).

Thus, while biopower refers to a general description of forms of power whose aim consists of supporting life (Hannah, 2011), biopolitics instead focuses on the specific strategies, science, and technologies developed to manage a population—and to legitimize and securitize (Foucault, 2008) through methods (birth rates, infant mortality, longevity) of diagnosis, as a way to deal with it (Legg, 2005). As biopolitics implies, all subsequent operations aimed primarily at dividing, categorizing, and acting upon a population in order to securitize the nation (Nadesan, 2008), with some scholars acknowledging the possibility of both local and global biopolitics being nourished by a biophilosophical discourse (Dillon & Reid, 2001).

Foucault calls our attention to the nature of the phenomena that can be observed through a biopolitical lens, being collective ones that can have either economic or political effects. These phenomena are equally random and unpredictable when observed individually, but constants are possible to establish once they are tackled collectively. In order to do so, biopolitics introduces mechanisms such as forecasts, statistical estimates, and measures so as to maintain an equilibrium (Foucault, 2003).

Mainly after 9/11 (Grove, 2010), biopolitics expresses itself through more sophisticated mechanisms such as digital and molecular controls (Dillon & Reid, 2001) or security and risk management (Lobo-Guerrero, 2007). Yet, regardless of the complexity of mechanisms, it is possible to shift from the micropolitical level (disciplinary institutions) to the biopolitical one (Ewald, 1990).

Thus, it is clear that, currently, disciplines and biopolitics coexist and operate differently with their respective techniques. While disciplinary techniques train individual bodies to “manipulate the body” through surveillance and training, biopolitical techniques instead use mechanisms—they deal with a multiple body, with life itself. So, as a technology, biopolitics is not concerned with individual bodies; rather, it is about “the population as a political problem,” and about controlling random events in order to get to an equilibrium point where the power of regularization (make life, let die) emerges (Foucault, 2003). Therefore, through disciplinary techniques and methods, the capabilities and utilities of bodies are enhanced more from an economic perspective, while the political docility of individual bodies is assured; biopower, meanwhile, regulates and governs the entire population (Smart, 2002).

The Foulcaldian conception of biopower covers technologies of power that refer to “the management of, and control over, the life of the population,” and coexists with older forms of power (sovereign, pastoral, disciplinary) reaching into and articulating all kinds of social life in order to maximize the population’s capacity and make it useful for market capitalization (Nadesan, 2008). In other words, the regulatory power of biopolitics does not exclude a disciplinary technology, but rather, both of them operate under different logics; biopolitics aims to control, intervene, and optimize the population itself (Collier, 2011). However, trying to draw the boundaries between sovereign power and biopower tightly not only is problematic, but denies the fact that both forms of power coexist with governmentality, too (Dean, 2007).

Biopower and IR

Foucault’s work has influenced IR Foulcaldians (Debrix, 2010) who have applied the thinker toolbox (Deleuze, 1997) so as to shed light on an extensive variety of international life issues. These have consisted, among others, mostly of issues of global governance, defense and security, gender studies, modern economy, trade and financial factors, the environment, human security, global politics and resistance, global civil society, post-territorial political communities, citizenship and biometrics, molecular security, and the modern food economy.

Some of these IR issues relate to Foucault’s reasoning about theory and practice, which are not separate aspects but rather interconnected dimensions brought together under the heading of “knowledge and power.” In fact, Foucault re-creates that relationship in Discipline and Punish (Foucault, 1995), wherein he states that “scientific-legal complex” discourses act as bases, justifications, and rules underpinning the power to punish. Thus, such power is analyzed not only in its “repressive” orbit but in consideration also of its positive effects—such as its “complex social function,” where punitive methods are techniques for exercising power. Thus, Foucault’s analysis about the mechanisms used, the effects derived from such an exercise, and the body immersed in power relations brings to our attention the apparatuses and institutions that intervene in the micro-physics of power.

The Foulcaldian idea of “power–knowledge relations” states that “there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations” (Foucault, 1995, pp. 21, 23, 25–27). It has influenced IR works regarding a political-strategic approach to understanding “territory” and the other reasons behind its emergence, sovereignty, and violence—as a form of power. If territory is a space wherein to exercise control over a population as an object itself—more specifically, one that must be controlled (Crampton & Elden, 2007)—then it would be likely to delineate territory as a geographical place in which state sovereignty and sovereign forms of power are practiced. But in spite of the contemporary liberal critique regarding sovereignty as a displaced and subordinated concept, sovereignty authorizes the use of violence in both the domestic and international spheres. Thus, sovereignty allows the monopoly of violence within a territorial space and makes governing societies possible, but it should be clear that sovereign powers and sovereignty not only coexist but are historical constructions both in concept and in practice (Dean, 2007). Herein sovereignty—and its concepts—are essential to discovering the more fundamental relations of power: discipline, biopower, and government (Dean, 2007, p. 134).

In fact, Foucault’s analysis shift from sovereignty to biopolitics shows the state as an actor “implicated in practices of racial division and domination.” However, Foucault’s understanding of modern power centers on European society and its historical changes, and particularly on local spaces, not even national, wherein “modern power operates” (Jabri, 2007, pp. 70–71).

Even though it is challenging to verify how such power is exercised locally and internationally, Foucault structures his analysis on two levels (representation and practices), moving among different concepts and different forms of power (war, discipline, biopolitics). His analysis also sheds light on the relationship between the social sphere and the role of the state in the international system. It shows the presence of war in historical analyses of social relations without restricting it to a battlefield but highlighting how the modern state assures two outcomes: “war (the power to kill) and biopower (the power to give life)” (Jabri, 2007, pp. 71–72).

Foucault highlights the way population problems intersect with the complex relations established between the human mass and environmental issues (geographical, hydrographic, and climatic) that create “the urban problem” (Foucault, 2003, p. 245). That explains not only Foucault’s shift from territory to society as a key element to study the way power functions (Neumann & Sending, 2010), but also helps to understand statist formulas of intervention and their target, too. Therefore, the sphere of intervention of the state through civil society evolves as the state adopts different formulas (liberal state, welfare state, neoliberal state), and then transforms into a post-neoliberal state where transnational civil society becomes the new target and international agencies aim to govern specific parts (policing, security, immigration) of state-societies (Dean, 2007). Yet Dean himself acknowledges that problems such as the “crisis of governability,” the crisis and contradictions of capitalism, the “dethroning of the idea of the state,” and the “emergence and proliferation of the concept of governance” (Dean, 2007, p. 47) problematize the idea of governing societies.

Foucault’s influence on contemporary international studies relates to global politics and its understanding of power, doing so mainly through critical theory. Cox (1981, p. 128) shows how theories can serve two particular purposes. “Problem-solving theories” take the world as it is and work as a guide “to solve the problems posed within the terms of the particular perspective” without questioning either institutions or relationships. Critical theories are reflective and wonder how the prevailing order of the world came about and whether it is possible to change it (Cox, 1981).

Critical theories incorporate a new set of elements into the analytical scenario by examining the origins of how the social and political complex influences phenomena under research, how the prevailing order came about, and its process of change (Cox, 1981). This therefore widens the scope of analysis to others subfields such as international political sociology and critical/cultural international political economy (Vrasti, 2013).

Some argue that the biopolitical lens has been mostly used in global politics, due to the fact that technologies, institutions, and discourses have become more complex as a result of the ever deeper interconnections between state actors, nonstate actors, and illicit actors (Leatherman, 2008). This is partially true, as most of the Foulcaldian influence on global politics rests on his critical ontology. As Djaballah (2013) highlights, Foucault’s ontology is more an attitude that permeates practices, and not a theoretical position or a doctrine. It arises at the intersection of the practices (religious and political) contained in the complex relations between power, truth, and subjectivity.

It is precisely on the basis of that triad that the relationship between biopower and global politics can be grasped. Foucault explains how relations of power—characterized by being unstable, reversible, and reciprocal—are present on a daily basis, while “states of domination” are power relations that are hierarchical, stable, and fixed. As such, the technologies of power are created to stabilize power relations and perpetuate states of domination. As Foucault “allows us to place the political in a field of power, resistance, strategy and confrontation” by the international practice of power through biopower (life and death), then its main target is highly connected with relations of power in a straightforward way (Dean, 2007, p. 12).

If biopower is a technology of power concerned with the global mass as a biological, political, and scientific problem (Foucault, 2003) immersed in power relations, then the concept of “governing societies”—as a project to create “a particular form of life as something that is normal and, in doing so, deciding what is outside the limits to that life”—helps to establish a connection between biopower and IR. In fact, the idea of “governing societies” in their collective dimension is intended to be reached through the development of instruments such as diplomacy and international law, the use or threat of military force and war (Dean, 2007), international finance, trade, and investment.

One of the main influences of Foucault’s way of reasoning on international and global politics relates to how power can be understood. IR classic texts (Morgenthau, 1948; Waltz, 1979) were initially preoccupied with the workings and distribution of power within the international system (Ham, 2010). As Bially Mattern (2008) states, both early and later realists consider power as an entity and thus analyze international phenomena by focusing on the material resources owned by different states and the ways in which they control them—with such scholars simultaneously being suspicious about theories and methods that paid attention to “intangibles” (Frey, 1971). Despite the discipline’s preoccupation with tangible measures widening during the second half of the 20th century, IR studies have continued to focus on states and their methodological behavioralism (Bially Mattern, 2008).

Such materialist and behavioral conceptions of power have been enriched by two other approaches to power having been adopted from political theory (“faces of power”) by some working within the IR discipline (Bially Mattern, 2008). Thus, while the first face of power focuses on tangible measures, the second face of power highlights elements such as the institutional positions of actors, decision-making, and compliance with international institutions decoupling power from conflict—as well as demonstrating the relevance of international cooperation (Kratochwil & Ruggie, 1986). A third face of power claims that power relations are not limited to the actors’ material and institutional arrangements, but rather also to their cultural position within social structures (Bially Mattern, 2008). As such, the question arises of how issues such as culture and ideological consent can be incorporated into the analysis of hegemonic rules (Spike, 2014). The fourth face of power, meanwhile, assumes that power is expressed through the discourses that create social meaning (Bially Mattern, 2008).

This kind of power conception has influenced IR scholars. Adopting some insights from post-structuralist theory to world politics has produced a Foucauldian “analytical orientation,” in the sense that all reality is structured first by language with discourses, then creating a coherent system of knowledge, objects, and subjects. Thereby the interrelationship between power and knowledge are re-created more vividly (Burke, 2008)—with it also highlighting a constitutive interconnection between power and freedom and, especially, governmental technologies (Dean, 2007) and resistance. This is also true for the interrelationship between power/domination and knowledge when analyzing international organizations (IOs), nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and private actors, and for the examination and evaluation of states according to certain standards (Löwenheim, 2008).

In The Birth of Biopolitics (2008), Foucault addresses the basic characteristics of the liberal art of government. Herein he focuses on the new raison d’état that sees the market as a truth-telling place and liberalism as an art of government wherein the freedom of the market ensures reciprocal, correlative, and enrichment behavior for European countries. Immersed in such a scenario of the “globalization of the market,” Foucault (2008) sees commercial globalization as the means to guarantee perpetual peace—where the new governmental reason, referring to liberalism, needs freedom to buy and sell, to exercise intellectual property rights, to discuss, to express, and to consume. Therefore, Foucault highlights here that freedom is not a given, but is rather constantly produced and, in order to do that, additional control and intervention are needed.

Foucault addresses—and differentiates from neoliberalism—the liberal art of government. From a political perspective, he considers it as “the generalization of state power”—wherein states exercise vigilance, undertake activity, and make interventions. The center hereof is pure competition, and consequently, neoliberals think of a society as subject to competition dynamics—an enterprise society whose members are people of enterprise and production (Foucault, 2008). What is at stake, then, in neoliberal policy is that market, competition, and enterprise become “the formative power of society” (Foucault, 2008, p. 148).

Foucault’s work on multiple governmentalities (Thomas, 2014) has extended to neoconservatism (Nadesan, 2008), but some people refer to biopolitics and neoliberalism as universals (Walters, 2012). In spite of such theoretical confusion, critical IR scholars have incorporated biopower issues into their own approaches that question these problems differently. These particular outcomes derived from Foucault’s reading of neoliberalism as an art of government have strongly influenced the inclusion of culture and ideas in IR analysis, as well as the creation of social meaning through discourses.

Critical IR scholars aim to highlight the social, cultural, and ideological influences that condition such thinking in the first place (Spike, 2014). In fact, they conceptualize the notion of power differently from the first face of power, as they focus either on the way individuals are produced and subordinated to discourses (productive power) or on “the constitution of social capacities and interests of actors in relation to one another” (structural power) (Barnett & Duvall, 2005, p. 3). Neumann and Sending refer to structural power as a way to conceptualize the governmental notion of power used in analysis of the international realm: as one that “operates through distant social relations to set up standards for what is appropriate, effective, and legitimate for groups or individuals to do” (2010, p. 61).

Both productive and structural perspectives of power might help us to understand the reality of the international world wherein—as Dean puts it—truth is contested by social movements, while power is now de-territorialized and identity pluralized (2007). Furthermore, global governance studies that develop that conception of power might be enriched by incorporating governmentality as a mode of power into the analysis (Neumann & Sending, 2010).

Post-structuralist IR scholars examine how, historically, discourses shape the subjectivities of actors using genealogical and discourse-analytic methods to demonstrate how systems of knowledge and discursive practices produce subjects—wherein discourses refer to systems of signification (Barnett & Duvall, 2005). Despite the fact that these authors do not focus on biopower per se, their way of reasoning might help in engaging with other concepts and achieving a better outcome of political analysis. Thus, from a post-structuralist perspective, scholars argue that not only material capacities and the power derived from institutional structures matter, but ideas and norms do, too. Yet they acknowledge Foucault’s structuralism (Burke, 2008), or, as Hardt and Negri (2000, p. 28) put it, Foucault’s “structuralist epistemology.”

In an even stricter sense, some parts of the IR literature incorporate Foucault’s approach so as to ask how: productive power produces subjects’ identities (Shaffer, 2005); how some agents struggle to resist the dominating logics, such as global civil society does in respect to capitalism; and, particularly, how globalization has fostered biopolitics (Lipschutz, 2005). Yet Dean (1999), as Lipschutz (2005) shows, acknowledges that governmentality is associated with biopolitics, as it is concerned with matters such as birth, death, health, illness, and all sorts of processes that aim to balance the population itself. Biopolitics also relates to social, cultural, environmental, economic, and geographic conditions as well. As such, biopower refers to all of the conditions in which human beings as a collective interact, the ways in which individuals are an outcome of discourses and practices, and the ways in which resistances are structured.

Biopolitical Production

How are individuals produced by and subordinated to discourses? Furthermore, if such production of subjectivities is brought into an IR discussion, which theoretical outcome from biopower has most significantly influenced the discipline?

So far, it is possible to grasp that Foucault’s lack of differentiation between biopower and biopolitics (Castro-Gómez, 2010) corresponds in some way with Hardt and Negri’s (2000) statement that Foucault fails to explain the real dynamics of biopolitical production in a biopolitical society. The ultimate reason for Foucault not developing the concept and study of biopolitics further was his death (Agamben, 1998, p. 4); Guattari and Rolnik’s (2006) work does, though, help us to better comprehend how societies are produced in a mechanical way. Here, human nature is shaped and consumed while immersed in a “capitalist culture”; in other words, they explain how the micro-physics of power are assembled. Thus, along with such an understanding, Foucault also offers highly productive methods of inquiry into the (un)making of modern subjectivity (Pasha, 2010).

In an attempt to shed light on biopolitical power production at the macro level, Hardt and Negri (2000) show how IOs such as, the UN, the IMF, the World Bank, and the GATT interconnect with transnational corporations (TNCs)—thereby elaborating a complex fabric within the biopolitical world through the power of capital. Such highly interdependent networking between these international actors facilitates the ways in which territories and populations are articulated, and determines where TNCs distribute labor power, allocate resources, and organize the economic centers of global production.

So far, what Foucault (Foucault, 2008) tentatively brings to attention regarding the political perspective of neoliberalism and state power can be seen to focus on competition, enterprise, and production. Hardt and Negri re-create this when they recall that monetary and financial dynamics allow for the production of individuals subordinated to the discourses led by those institutions. Such a cyclical and never-ending dynamic is clearer when the production of language and communication is taken into account as part of the communication industries (Hardt & Negri, 2000). In this case, the media organizations existing as TNCs in alliance with locals are the key private actors.

Thus, Empire, as a concept, allows IR scholars to critically rethink the means that are used to exercise power, with it being a power to intervene that rests on its moral dimensions. This is enacted through the moral interventions practiced by nonstate actors such as NGOs at the global, regional, and local levels of action (among others, Amnesty International, Oxfam, Mèdecins sans Frontières). These actors become, then, very active players within “the biopolitical context of the constitution of Empire” (Hardt & Negri, 2000, pp. 35, 36).

Biopower itself is conceptualized and used within different academic contexts. For example, Hardt and Negri approach defense and security issues in their seminal work Multitude (2004). Conceptually different from social subjects, people, masses, and the working class, Multitude refers to a multiplicity of innumerable internal differences never capable of being reduced to a single identity—as they are composed of different cultures, races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, forms of labor, ways of living, and so on. They acknowledge both global war, and its regulative legal capacity, and imperial war, and its task of shaping the global political environment, as forms of biopower in the productive sense, as both have a regulating function that consolidates the existing order of Empire. Thus, this concept denotes that traditional state boundaries are no longer needed, as its rule encompasses the whole of humankind without the need for temporal boundaries (territory)—instead operating in the social world (population) and regulating all social life in its entirety (Hardt & Negri, 2000). In that sense, Empire represents a form of power that regulates social life (biopower)—one whose main concern is “the production and reproduction of life itself” (Hardt & Negri, 2000).

Corporate biopower is another scenario wherein new forms of (economic) management are developed so as to cope with the challenges of the global food system, to get to an equilibrium of that mass, and to keep the biopolitical machine running. As Nally (2011) shows, the acceleration in the use of biotechnologies followed by the interest of industrialized states in enforcing intellectual property rights on agricultural products—according to the mandate of IOs such the WTO—denotes a protagonist role being played by the transnational business community, leading states, and global rulers. Likewise, such corporate biopower coexists with IO agendas (WTO, IMF, WB) that theoretically focus on enhancing and optimizing the living conditions of the “global poor” (Di Muzio, 2008). But behind such an objective lies a neoliberal development discourse that has the global poor as its target population (Di Muzio, 2008, p. 313). Herein food and aid practices of famine relief lead to methods that discipline and reproduce relations of power, as long as preventing famine centralizes expert knowledge and funding in IOs or research institutes and their subsequent (re)production of practices (Edkins, 2000).

The emergence of biopolitical mechanisms of security such as insurance and risk management reflects another scenario wherein a critical security lens analyzes the cultural and political effects, the institutional discourses of the WB and UN, and the possible tragic scenarios generated by the Global South and experienced by the Global North. Especially since the attacks of 9/11, these scenarios have set alarm bells ringing on the global security map (Grove, 2010). Likewise since the attacks of March 11, 2004 (Madrid), and July 7, 2005 (London), Westerners have been living within a state of terror that is crucial both to maintaining and replacing political institutions, and to implementing measures and policies. As such, a generalized biopolitics of fear is administered by the modern state by biopolitical agents/agencies of fear production (police, military, immigration, customs officers, and airport security officers) at the national and international levels. Yet Rygiel (2008) shows how biopower is performed internationally through biometrics measures introduced after 9/11 by the United States and the United Kingdom, being promoted through IOs such as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Migration Organization (IMO) (Berman, 2007)—thus deepening a disciplinary regime (Rygiel, 2008). More recently, some mechanisms of biopolitical security have emerged to deal with the problematic issue of kidnap risk, where populations are created in the process of insuring and wherein socioeconomic aspects are considered to classify an individual who might be abducted (Lobo-Guerrero, 2007). Also, mechanisms such as organizational biopolitics refer to the use of biodata through policies and norms to govern lives and the need to regulate it globally (Plester et al., 2022).

It is evident that the dynamics of the 20th and 21st centuries have facilitated the understanding of biopower and its two basic forms of exercising power over life: one individually on the human body through techniques and disciplines designed to optimize capacities (anatomo-politics), and the other one on the population as a whole (biopolitics). The latter is inflected so as to manage and regulate demographic characteristics (Smart, 2002). Yet, to what extent has biopolitical reasoning about the production of subjectivities influenced IR thinking? An even more challenging question to answer would be this: How has the biopolitical approach drawn IR scholars into discussions regarding resistance?

Individuals as Outcome of Discourses and Resistance Discussions in IR

Again, much of the influence of Foucault on IR theorists who specifically work on biopower has been very narrow in scope so far, as many scholars have been particularly influenced by governmentality (Joseph, 2009, 2010b; Lipschutz, 2005; Vrasti, 2013; Weidner, 2009; Zanotti, 2013). Yet IR scholars’ discussions about productive power allow us to deal with the “discursive production of the subjects, the fixing of meanings, and the terms of action, of world politics” (Barnett & Duvall, 2005, p. 21). Similarly, with global governance issues, some questions arise: How are subjects produced? And, to what extent do IOs support such production? Accordingly, how are narratives structured, and why do regional IOs facilitate them and disseminate correlative practices?

Barnett and Finnemore (2005) show in a straightforward way how IOs are “produced” and, furthermore, how and why states are interested in subjectivities produced domestically—as social tasks have to be performed by highly trained people, of which the state bureaucracy can have a lack. In such a case, IOs offer expert knowledge through technical cooperation—so as to help locals to overcome challenging situations and to meet the organization’s own requirements. An example might be the IMF financial assistance that is given in exchange for an efficient and convincing economic program implemented to tackle balance-of-payments problems, with the aforementioned institution approving of this program as the right way to proceed. Another example might be the Interamerican Development Bank (IDB) technical and financial assistance to regional intergovernmental groups and affiliated entrepreneurs—such as the Pacific Alliance formed by Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru (Guerra-Barón, 2020).

Thus, Barnett and Finnemore’s (2005) work on IOs’ expert authority makes sense within current discussions regarding the interplay between neoliberal policy and what Foucault calls “the enterprise” and “the formative power” of society (2008, p. 148). Yet IOs aim to serve a social purpose in an impartial and technocratic way, through impersonal and neutral means, but without exercising power. Instead, they serve others: states (Barnett & Finnemore, 2005). The way in which these organisms behave reflects how biopower is affected despite there being no specific actor to blame for any ensuing negative outcomes. Instead, IOs “contribute to the social constitution of the world and thus play an important role in shaping subjectivities” in the process, exhibiting productive power (Barnett & Finnemore, 2005, p. 175).

Likewise, Adler and Bernstein’s (2005) work on knowledge in power explains how epistemic communities use scientific knowledge to make state leaders aware of the need to cooperate in facing up to critical and common issues. More importantly, though, they focus on a far-reaching effect, which consists of the (re)production and transformation of identities and interests. Adler and Bernstein (2005) state—paraphrasing Foucault—that power is also productive, as it defines the order of global things. Therein such productive capacity is often followed by the founding of the formal and informal institutions necessary for global governance, which, at the same time, rests on material capabilities and knowledge. Thus, the authors highlight the incidence of knowledge in productive power and the way epistemes that nourish global governance are not just reducible to the material power and interests of hegemonic states, but are embedded in institutions and the collective understandings of actors.

So far, the role of IOs as prominent actors in the (re)production of subjects (in the biopolitical sense) is clear. But, as Lipschutz (2005) states, there are zones of contestation, agency, and autonomy where discursive ruptures or discontinuities arise. Subjectivities production and resistance come mostly from the work of post-Foulcaldian political thinkers such as Giorgio Agamben (1998, 2005) and, again, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2000, 2004), who have taken a critical position toward the micro-physics of power (Castro-Gómez, 2010; Oksala, 2013) as well as facilitated discussions regarding subjectivities production being a way to respond to both local and transnational needs (Adler & Bernstein, 2005). But the key factor to argue about in such things is the posited triumph of capitalism, achieved through the disciplinary control that biopower and its appropriate technologies have to create docile bodies (Agamben, 1998).

In fact, Hardt and Negri bring globalization into IR discussions, and its related interpretation of localization work, as “a regime of the production of identity and difference . . . homogenization and heterogenization” (2000, p. 45). This leads to the question already put forward: How are individuals produced? In fact, these thinkers state that current global relations are shaped through the interplay of decolonization, the decentralization of production, and the construction of international relations across the globe—wherein the third mechanism revolves around an ideal global production system sustained through Fordist wage regimes that allow any worker from any part of the world to work anywhere, and furthermore to constitute part of the global productive process (Hardt & Negri, 2000).

The development of neoliberalism, of course, has played a key role in inserting bodies into the economic system. Thus an economic subject emerges and behaves as “entrepreneur of himself” (Foucault, 2008, p. 226) wherein an “enterprise man” emerges as a “new type of individual” that neoliberalism requires (Ball, 2013, p. 132). Precisely, among education and entrepreneurship dynamics, Hardt and Negri (2004) highlight the role of ideas and knowledge as immaterial labor that creates forms of social life that transcend economic matters and that include social, cultural, and political forces. At the same time, the development of neoliberalism has a role in promoting the (re)production of subjectivities for a society that struggles against poverty, strives for democracy, and conforms to liberation resistances.

Resistance is constituted of practices not necessarily against power, but that “exist in the strategic field of power relations” (Foucault, 1978, p. 96). Conduct refers to the ethical sphere of resistance (Davidson, 2011) and can be interpreted in different ways: the activity of conducting, the way in which one conducts oneself, and the way one behaves under the influence of a conduct as the action of conducting (Foucault, 2007, cited by Davidson, 2011). Thus it is important to have in mind that resistance and counter-conduct are not negative phenomena, but express themselves in different fields of action: politics and ethics, respectively. The interest here resides first in resistance as political practices that target biopolitical production itself. This might consist of refusal, escape, and the dispossession of identities (Prozorov, 2007). Of interest also is counter-conduct, as long as it refers to global politics.

Foucault’s studies influence resistance theorists mostly (Amoore, 2005, cited by Death, 2010; Barry, 2001; Bleiker, 2004) yet, as Death acknowledges, the idea of counter-conduct might help to develop “an analytics of protest for the study of contentious politics” that focuses on specific practices and rationalities of practice “undermining and challenging dominant forms of global governance” (2010, p. 236). Such protests at major world summits—against international financial institutions (WB, IMF) and the WTO—denaturalize their verticality and hierarchy and, instead, reveal how dominant discourses (re)produce certain “political fields of vision” (Death, 2010, p. 242) and work as producers of knowledge and subjectivities.

The kind of resistance that Hardt and Negri (2004) bring to light exemplifies a struggle against subjection or subjectivization, but does not necessarily exclude other sources of resistance such as domination and exploitation (Knight & Smith, 2008). This is because, as Foucault (1982) states, the mechanisms of subjection cannot be studied outside of their relationship to the other mechanisms, due to the complex relationships that keep them perpetually interconnected.

Although Death (2014) criticizes Foucault’s lack of attention to resistance and dissent, from an empirical perspective, Edkins (2014) alternatively highlights that the thinker’s notion of power not only expresses itself in power relations but depends also on the very possibility of resistance itself. Further, as power is different from domination, then there is freedom—and, as such, resistance or counter-power (Forst, 2007). In any case, new forms of transnational solidarity and resistance have emerged recently due to the domination and exploitation that have derived from the globalization of capitalism. An example of such is the emergence of “a movement of movements” resistant to the neoliberal globalization promoted by the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO, and networked elite groups such as the World Economic Forum (Rupert, 2005). These make visible the limits of governing from a distance, thereby inviting the use of repressive force (Dillon & Reid, 2001). Critics of global relations based on competition and calculus have equally talked up resistance as a phenomenon that works as a counterbalance to capitalist power relations, to put it in Foucauldian terms (Smart, 2002).

Thus, new struggles arise as political rationalities and techniques of government evolve—particularly so during the course of the new century, therein denoting shifts from territorial control concerns to biopolitical preoccupations. These are related specifically to the condition, welfare, and management of the population (Jaeger, 2007)—where, as Hardt and Negri (2004) remark, people are embedded in systems of economic (re)production in which they perform jobs and produce outcomes currently more immaterial than material, such as ideas, information, and knowledge. And yet, immersed in the biopolitics of fear (Debrix & Barder, 2009), people survive through the social power of consumption, another phase enabled by the expression of biopower. This, Ham (2010) highlights, bringing in Altheide’s research (2004), wherein he shows a relationship between the politics of consumption after 9/11 by Americans that is embedded in that milieu.

In the current state of war (Hardt & Negri, 2004, p. 68) or of the biopolitics of fear (Debrix & Barder, 2009), modern class wars of liberation are now taking place. Consequently, new occurrences of the production of subjectivities are arising with them, wherein it is possible to wonder about resistance schemes and about the role that people play therein as they legitimate the use of violence. In this case, the legitimation process lies not in the sovereignty of the people, but rather “in the biopolitical productivity of the multitude” (Hardt & Negri, 2004, pp. 73, 79)—where humanity becomes “the new biopolitical body” (Agamben, 1998, p. 9).

Despite the strong criticisms of Hardt and Negri’s theoretical approach (biopolitics, Multitude, Empire) and its conceptual impossibility—particularly of their argument about the “utopia of ‘biopolitics without sovereignty’” (Prozorov, 2007, p. 143) and the sovereignty of biopower—the authors’ idea of the biopolitical production and resistance mechanisms can reasonably be articulated alongside resistance in traditional emancipatory terms. As such, resistance targets the “biopolitical rationalities of power relations” (Prozorov, 2007, p. 130), thereby highlighting the complexity of world politics (Zanotti, 2013).

Despite Foucault referring to biopower and biopolitics indistinctly—that is, without making any further differentiation between them—he recurred to the notion of governmentality rather than biopolitics (Castro-Gómez, 2010) in his later works, particularly during the 1990s (Dean, 2007). Here he defines the former as an ensemble of institutions, procedures, analysis, reflections, calculations, and tactics that allow a complex power to be exercised that has as its target the population at large (Foucault, 2007). Thus, governmentality analysis adopts a methodology that takes into account specific practices that go beyond the state as a unit, and which emerge within social fields (the state, the market, and population) where multiple systems of power coexist among networks of control and resistance (Nadesan, 2008).

That broader and more comprehensive definition than the one Foucault gave for biopolitics might explain why many studies have engaged more with governmentality. That equally enriches and focuses discussions with “local conceptual devices” (strategies, technologies, programs, techniques). This is to understand the systems of power that inhabit us without, as Foucault claimed, becoming universals. Under the heading of “The Arts of Government” or “Political Rationality,” he focuses on “the nature and limits of ‘the political’ . . . , government, and with liberalism,” inspiring timely research about “the relations of the ethos of liberalism and its techne” (Barry et al., 1997, pp. 4, 6, 7, 10).

Foucault’s toolbox allows IR scholars to recur to governmentality as well as to distinguish disciplinary power, governmentality and its types (liberalism, neoliberalism), and biopolitics itself. This explains IR theorists’ attraction to governmentality, especially when power is exercised through “institutions, practices, procedures, and techniques which act to regulate social conduct” (Joseph, 2010a, p. 224)—as Joseph (2009) puts it, governmentality of populations (p. 425). Herein the population itself is the object and target of government (Vrasti, 2013) as well as its purpose (Lipschutz, 2005). Thus, the Foulcaldian interpretation allows us to conceive of a sort of global governmentality: “an arrangement of actors and institutions, of rules and rule, through which the architecture of the global articulation of states and capitalism is maintained” (Lipschutz, 2005, pp. 235, 236). Even more challengingly, it permits the study of global politics through the lens of governmentality (Neumann & Sending, 2010)—which can be verified empirically when analyzing phenomena such as governance ratings and rankings made by IOs, NGOs, and private agencies (Löwenheim, 2008).

This global governmentality is a “process” defined by its historical and social context (Joseph, 2009, p. 426). Nonetheless, as Dean and Larsson (2021) put it, when governmentality is applied to IR, it risks turning the former concept into a normative tradition that promotes a new world order—displacing traditional sovereignty with liberal governance, for example. However, applying Foucault’s notions to the global dimension has been roundly criticized on the basis that scholars should be aware of the limitations of governmentality as a concept (Joseph, 2010a). This, regardless of its use as a heuristic tool, “to explore practices of government and resistance,” or as a descriptive one that studies the “convergence of biopolitical, disciplinary, and governmental techniques in global liberalism” (Zanotti, 2013, pp. 289, 291).

As Vrasti (2013) shows, critics cite the fact that the Foucauldian approach is too microscopic—and thus not useful to IR interests (Selby, 2007). Equally, critics address Foucault’s interest in the ways power is exercised (actions) or his plain refusal to accept sovereign power as a key element that informs hierarchical distinctions (Pasha, 2010). Other scholars make even stronger claims regarding Foucault’s presence in IR due to ontological differences between international and domestic issues, thus marking Foucault’s work as less relevant for the study of international politics (Thomas, 2014).

Additionally some contemporary IR works overstate Foucauldian concepts such as biopower or liberal governmentality, and thereby in the process ignore totalitarian or coercive forms of control existing across the globe (Selby, 2007). For some, the Foucauldian “trespassing into IR” is a fact—and, as such, Pasha calls for “disciplining Foucault . . . to ensure that IR remains disciplined” (2010, pp. 213, 214).

Despite the fact that these critics are referring to those scholars who recur to the Foucauldian tools as a way to explain international or transnational issues, rather than to Foucault’s own work per se (Thomas, 2014), some scholars acknowledge the importance of the preceding criticisms.

These are a warning both about impoverished current analysis that does not differentiate text or discourse—but that is engaged, rather, in empiricist analysis—and about taking into account the fact that Foucault’s works are mostly built out of the domestic environment (Calkivik, 2010). Thus greater specification of “where governmentality can be applied” (Joseph, 2010a, p. 235) is needed, because such studies will help IR scholars to develop more empirically grounded research (Vrasti, 2013).

Further Research

Foucault’s transdisciplinary work nourishes critical IR thinking. As Agamben (1998) puts it, the Foucauldian abandonment of the traditional approach to power (sovereignty and state theory) and the adoption of an analysis of the concrete ways in which power is exercised over bodies, life, and the population as a whole allows to develop a critical posture that interconnects the discussions happening at different levels of society between different actors. One example of this is Hardt and Negri’s (2004) critique of the UN-based international order, and with it both the sovereign equality of nation-states from above (through the biopolitical process of production) and from below (meaning the resistance to neoliberal biopolitical global governance). Alternatively, there is the opposition represented by critical approaches to the cosmopolitan discourse of power promoted in the 1990s and the struggles against a biopolitical global governance (Chandler, 2009).

However, one of the challenges for IR Foucauldians consists of making a reasonable use of the richness of the concept of biopower itself. Thus, attention should be driven toward an analysis of those local practices around the world that may share overarching effects, and that may come with familiar overtones to Foucault’s own studies (Neumann & Sending, 2010; Thomas, 2014).

Other authors aim to bring up narratives usually uncovered while claiming that IR mainstream scholars omit non-predominant representations. For example, Dauphinee and Masters (2016) question the dominant representation of the War on Terror as an attack on America by examining other histories—the missing, the deported, the detained—through “The Logic of Biopower.”

From another perspective, IR Foucauldians might research further the complex and highly interconnected power relations wherein disciplinary power and biopower coexist. The overlap between the discipline of the bodies and the regulation of the population (Simons, 2013) might enable further studies to be undertaken that can potentially explain the interplay between state and nonstate actors, and the ways in which IOs produce subjectivities—as well as possible resistance narratives. Thus, recurring to Foucault’s genealogy means to approach practices, and to reveal the certain logic behind them, through even more sophisticated dispositifs—ones that address the intrinsic relationship between domestic and international issues.

Dispositifs refer to the both discursive and non-discursive practices that emerge in a particular time period of history and that are inserted into complex relations of power as networks with their own rationality, thereby highlighting the ways in which historical practices work (Castro-Gómez, 2010). IR critical scholars might enrich current research as follows: by constructing a grid of analysis to see how cultural practices shape power relations at present (Leatherman, 2008), by looking back at the past to understand how and why they have even arisen (Rygiel, 2008), and by helping to make such practices visible (Castro-Gómez, 2010). The dispositifs identification as a methodology has been applied to understanding domestic (maritime) interests and power structures through critical discourse studies (Rivera-Páez et al., 2018) as a way to comprehend power relations at a larger scale. Such identification also applies to security practices studies, wherein the dispositifs identification is possible through the connection established between agents/agencies and their corresponding tools/instruments (see Balzacq et al., “Security Practices”).

Foucault’s work for critical academic practice (Richmond, 2010)—“the study of power, knowledge, government, peace and war” (Shani & Chandler, 2010, p. 196)—as well as the openness of that practice in methodological and epistemological terms (Richmond, 2010) are the most prominent outcomes for IR as a discipline.

IR and critical studies have expanded significantly. Poststructural and postmodern approaches in IR usually focus on discourse analysis of categories such as state, sovereignty, and war in an attempt to “articulate a different political imaginary” and shed light on alternative conceptualizations (see Çalkıvik, “Poststructuralism and Postmodernism in International Relations”). Comprehending power in international politics through biopolitics and specific emerging practices (dispositifs) has spread throughout a wide range of IR topics, the analysis of domestic aspects, and its international implications.

Nonetheless, in this poststructuralist or critical IR approximation to contemporary IR, postcolonial scholars should—more than others, perhaps—be aware of the fact that appropriating Foucault’s way of reasoning might silence the colonized (Shani & Chandler, 2010). As Shani (2010, p. 210) warns, poststructuralists and IR critical scholars shall avoid re-colonizing Foucault—especially when describing his work in IR realist or critical theory approaches. For Shani, some IR scholars attempt to interpret Foucault in a “sufficiently intelligible, systematic and coherent” fashion (2010, p. 211). Shani’s warning to avoid colonizing the French philosopher's work is evident when the author defines genealogy as the Foucauldian “weapon” (Shani, 2010, p. 212) in his fight against a standardized scientific discourse.

Undoubtedly, dispositifs discovering and the social and political reasoning behind them keep consolidating as a field of research. Thus, IR and global politics scholars influenced by the Foucauldian way of reasoning might develop innovative methodologies which uncover local and domestic practices with broader ones.


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