The Brave New World of Biopolitics

Bill Maher made a great point on January 28 in the “New Rules” segment with which he concludes his weekly late-night talk show on HBO. The topic was overregulation by Democrats. After noting that “the Biden infrastructure bill has a provision that requires all new cars to install an alert system that goes off when you leave a baby in the back seat,” Maher opined that “Democrats no longer possess the common sense to understand that not every problem in the world can be fixed by a regulation. But don’t tell that to the advocacy groups who also want every future car in America to only start when the driver blows into a breathalyzer. Oh great, my other car is a Karen.”
His great point wasn’t that we should protect the freedom to drive drunk, nor that the proposed regulation wouldn’t pass a rational cost/benefit analysis, nor even that Democrats generally have a problem with overregulation; it was what he said next, for which the drunk driving quip was merely a setup—he is, after all, a comedian. The punchline was: “Well, you know, it’s also not safe to drive when you’re crying. Should we make a car that follows your texts and stops the engine when you’re dumped? Racism is bad; how about a car that won’t start unless you play a message about tolerance from George Takei?”

This is worth taking time to consider. 

Maher’s jokes point us toward a particularly insidious possibility for the development and deployment of new technologies—one that China has already been pursuing for a long time, in fact. As technology infiltrates our lives at every level, we must grapple with the insidious potential of so-called “biopolitics.” 

The Unlimited Horizon of Biopolitics

The ability to effectively regulate presupposes the ability to effectively enforce regulation; to paraphrase Thomas Hobbes, “laws without the sword are but words.” And enforcement depends on technology, which has always both enabled and constrained regulatory enforcement. Even in ancient times, for example, enforcing a tax policy required basic technologies, from the abacus to the sword. 

As technology advances, so do the possibilities for regulation and enforcement. For one, it becomes possible to enforce existing regulations more effectively. For example, developments in camera and radar technology made possible more precise and thorough enforcement of regulations for automobile operation that were already on the books, such as prohibitions on speeding and running red lights. But it also opens up new horizons for regulation. For example, we could not have continuously monitored all citizens’ private speech for most of human history without assigning a soldier or police officer to each person. Today, one would just have to listen in through the microphones that are ubiquitous in contemporary society, not least those most people carry around everywhere they go, including the bathroom. Developments in automation and computer technology, in particular, exponentially increase the possibilities for regulatory enforcement.

When it comes to regulating people’s behavior, surveillance technologies are obviously the most relevant. After all, to punish someone for behaving wrongly presupposes an ability to know when they so behave. Concerns over the implications of advancements in surveillance technology for overregulation are familiar nowadays in many contexts, though perhaps the most chilling examples are found in China. which liberally leverages surveillance technologies for purposes of social control. Tracking, facial recognition, and data analysis technologies are integral to the infamous Chinese “social credit system.”

The term “biopolitics” was coined in 1905 by Rudolf Kjellen, a political scientist who also coined the term “geopolitics,” in reference to his organic theory of the state. As early as 1934, certain Nazis began using it to refer to their own organic theory of the state and its people, as well as to the racist and eugenicist political program they were then developing. In the 1970s, it received a very different meaning in the hands of the leftist postmodernist theorist Michel Foucault. Without getting into the details of Foucault’s account, which are characteristically labyrinthine, his basic idea was that “biopolitics” is the politics of the modern state, and it is distinguished by the state’s use of “biopower” as opposed to the “sovereign power” characteristic of pre-modern states. Where “sovereign power” was founded in control over death—with capital punishment as its ultimate expression—biopower is founded in control over life.

As the Foucault entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it, “The aim is the effective administration of bodies and the calculated management of life through means that are scientific and continuous. Mechanisms of power and knowledge have assumed responsibility for the life process in order to optimize, control, and modify it. The exercise of power over living beings no longer carries the threat of death, but instead takes charge of their lives.” 

In short, “biopolitics” signifies the penetration of the political into human biology, enabling more refined and precise control over the living bodies and populations constituting the people of a biopolitical state. Foucault’s friend, the philosopher Gilles Deleuze, elaborated this view of the contemporary political situation in a short 1990 essay titled “Postscript on Control Societies”, which is perhaps the most important and certainly the most lucid thing he ever wrote. In it, three features of biopolitical states and their “control societies,” as opposed to the “disciplinary” states and societies that preceded them historically, come to the fore. Namely, the exercise of power becomes (1) more refined or precise, (2) more continuous in its exercise, and (3) this power and its exercise not only exceed traditional institutions, but catalyze their breakdown and replacement.

Deleuze contrasts the “ultrarapid forms of apparently free-floating control” with “the old disciplines” through which “sovereign power” was exercised in earlier times. The “disciplines” relied on spatiotemporally discrete “sites of confinement” which functioned to mold the bodies, minds, and populations that passed through them—such as prisons, schools, and hospitals. In contrast, the new systems and mechanisms of “control” are like a continuous modulation, and they are not spatiotemporally discrete and confined but can potentially permeate the society in all aspects. The upshot is that the entire society becomes a prison, a school, a hospital, etc. Consider the use of ankle bracelets to continuously monitor and restrict the movement of criminals as a replacement for imprisonment in a cell. Consider not just Deleuze’s example of the rise of “community psychiatry, day hospitals, and home care” as a function of the “breakdown of the hospital as a site of confinement” (and the rise of “society as hospital”), but also that of so-called and increasingly popular “wearables” that continuously monitor the wearer’s vital signs or other biomedical data. Using thermal imaging technology to continuously scan people in public for fever as a possible symptom of covid infection would be an exemplary case of “biopolitical control.”

Freedom or Safetyism?

With this notion of biopolitics as the exercise of “biopower” for the sake of “control” in hand, let’s return to Bill Maher’s rhetorical question about crying drivers. For, though delivered in the form of a joke, the question is quite serious. There are a number of potentially regulatable factors that can adversely affect one’s ability to drive. There is evidence to suggest that these include things like playing loud music and using electronic devices like smartphones, which could of course be surveilled through more traditional and not necessarily biopolitical means. But they also include things like emotional state and sleep deprivation, with the latter even rivaling intoxication in its impact—and the effective measuring of these sorts of conditions would require biopolitical technology. The question, then, is: why not require potential drivers to submit to some biopolitical surveillance technology which measures their cognitive and/or emotional state against some standard considered “safe” for driving?

Well, it’s all a question of what we value as a society, isn’t it? Which value is more fundamental to our identity as Americans and as citizens of our putatively democratic state: safety or freedom? Are we more Hobbesian or Lockean? Depending on how much more we value safety over freedom, and depending on what the technology makes possible, it is not unimaginable that we would make potential drivers undergo not just a “sobriety test” before driving, but an “emotionality test” as well. And why stop with operating cars? If not checked by moral principle or political policy, this sort of regulation, surveillance, and enforcement has nearly limitless applications.

We seem poised to hurtle blindly into a new biopolitical surveillance regime simply because its proponents promise it will help achieve various values of safetyism and wokeism, from protecting “public health” to increasing “equity.”

If emotionality is shown to negatively affect performance of various kinds of attention-demanding tasks more generally, then why not make passing an “emotionality test” a prerequisite for, say, police officers going on patrol, physicians performing a surgery, or customer service representatives taking calls? Such a test could even be individually calibrated for different tasks, since heightened levels of emotion x might degrade performance for task y but not for task z, which they might even enhance. For that matter, why even make it a test—why not just continuously monitor the subject’s emotional state and restrict their movement, access, or activities whenever their emotionality rises above some threshold of acceptability? All of which, incidentally, could be automatized, much as “content moderation” is largely automatized on platforms like YouTube already.

In this context, it is crucial to consider how increasingly “safetyist” American culture has become. “Safetyism” is the name proposed by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, in their 2018 book The Coddling of the American Mind, for a novel “moral culture” that had originated on college and university campuses and has since rapidly colonized the larger American culture. They define safetyism as “a culture or belief system in which safety has become a sacred value, which means that people become unwilling to make trade-offs demanded by other practical and moral concerns.”

The rise of safetyism has been dramatically highlighted over the course of the covid pandemic, with many Americans demonstrating a willingness and even eagerness to give up various traditional rights and liberties in exchange for the promise of increased biomedical protection by the regulatory state. This was perhaps most exemplarily on display in the way that many Americans, not least in the mainstream media, prioritized the biomedical protection promised by lockdowns and shutdowns over any potential tradeoffs, such as negative economic impacts. This even extended to refusing to consider or discuss such tradeoffs, even in cases where these redounded to matters of health in various ways (such as increases in rates of mental illness, substance addiction, and suicide).

Last November, I wrote about the connection between safetyism and another increasingly dominant sociopolitical phenomenon, namely, what is nowadays often called “wokeism.” Because the pandemic seemed to be propelling the further rise of safetyism, because safetyism and wokeism are in various ways “fellow travelers” and even “joined at the hip” in many contexts, and because both have become increasingly culturally dominant in recent years, I worried that the pandemic would accelerate the growth of both of these problematic ideologies, which many have convincingly characterized as forms of secular religion.

In this context, Maher’s second quip—about mandating the viewing of a “message of tolerance” from George Takei as a prerequisite for starting one’s car—could not be more apropos. One of the signal features of wokeism is the semantic inflation of safety-related terms. Haidt & Lukianoff themselves, among many others, have noted this “concept creep” and even its connection to the political ideology of wokeism. Terms like “violence,” “trauma,” “abuse,” “safety,” and so on are now used to refer to a much wider range of phenomena than formerly. Cases of students claiming that this or that offensive speech makes them “unsafe” or even does “violence” to them—even when the speech might be inoffensive to the vast majority of Americans—have become too numerous to count. The same goes for terms related to danger or threat, and especially those signifying dangerous or threatening political phenomena. Terms like “fascist” and “racist” have undergone enormous semantic inflation during the rise of wokeism, to the point that affirming traditionally liberal ideals like merit and colorblind justice is now considered racist and cause for cancellation by many.

If safetyism prioritizes safety over traditionally fundamental rights and freedoms, and if wokeism expands the meaning of “safety” to include protection from politically incorrect speech, then why not deploy biopolitical technologies against speech, behavior, persons, institutions, and communities considered politically incorrect? If “racism,” whether or not the woke can even define it, is medicalized—for example, by rendering it a mental illness and thus a matter of public health—then what’s so outlandish or implausible about Bill Maher’s joke scenario? For that matter, if “racism is a virus,” why not quarantine those deemed racist by the current “experts” and political authorities? Can today’s woke safetyists come up with any answer other than “Why not, indeed?”

Like any technology, biopolitical surveillance poses both potential benefits and potential harms. As citizens of a democratic state, it is both our privilege and our responsibility to engage in deliberation and debate about the implications of such technologies in order to negotiate popularly acceptable policies for their development, deployment, and regulation. However, given the current state of American culture—in particular, the increasing dominance of safetyism and wokeism—my worry is that no such public debate will take place. Just like with covid lockdowns, we seem poised to hurtle blindly into a new biopolitical surveillance regime simply because its proponents promise it will help achieve various values of safetyism and wokeism, from protecting “public health” to increasing “equity.”

Bill Maher’s recent jokes give me at least some hope that I am wrong, that the American public is indeed beginning to wake up to the reality of biopolitics and the need to discuss its threat and promise. But only time will tell.