GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

February 1, 2015


Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:32 am

This is a term generally credited to Michel Foucault, to describe what comes after the “disciplinary society,” when social institutions no longer just normalize subjects but intervene in the production of the population from birth (and even before) on up—when all politics becomes concerned with the health of the population, considered as a source of wealth. Foucault’s The Birth of Bio-Politics is almost completely concerned with historical and contemporary liberal and neo-liberal thought, including Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Gary Becker—there is currently a little debate among leftists over whether the later Foucault went over to the dark side (i.e., conservatism, or at least free marketism), and this book gives grounds for such suspicions. Foucault examines these thinkers in detail, sympathetically, without the slightest hint of animadversion—a Foucauldian leftist could console herself that he simply laying bare the obvious horror of these ideals, in a style very familiar to readers of Foucault (never once, in his famous “Panopticism” essay, does Foucault explicitly condemn the phenomenon in question). Maybe, but it reads to me more like Foucault is approaching these ideas with a real sense of discovery and even common interests. The main question he poses is, once we see the “self” as “marketable,” and society as composed of as the infinitely complicated interplay of all these selves on the market, what is left for the government to do. It doesn’t seem to me that Foucault arrives at a very clear answer, other than “not very much,” but, implicitly, the real answer is to intervene when these selves make “irrational” decisions that will interfere with both the market chances of those individuals and the smooth functioning of the market as a whole; but, since the government can no longer operate vertically, with explicit decisions that are obeyed by subjects and enforced by the police without destroying the economy, these interventions must operate on incentives—through what Cass Sunstein calls “nudges” (the government doesn’t tell people what to choose; rather, it influences the “choice architecture”). The interventions are very indirect, then, but very thoroughgoing, as there is no end to irrational choices that will impair the individual’s marketable and increase costs to society—diet, exercise, mold in one’s house, driving habits, sexual practices, gun ownership, etc.—assign a few bureaucrats to make up a list and you’ll see that nothing of our lives is off-limits. A very different kind of thinker, Mark Steyn, in essence agrees with this point when he regularly points out the inverse proportion between the importance given by a government to healthcare, on the one hand, and national defense, on the other: once the government takes primary responsibility for the health of its population, there will be no resources or will remaining for traditional state functions—in a sense, to sound another Foucaudian theme, health becomes the primary security concern (and security concerns become health concerns, with terrorist attacks and even—why not?—foreign invasions posing health risks to be measured against cancer, traffic accidents, planetary warming, suicides caused by bullying and gender confusion, etc.). We could add to this form of bio-politics ongoing (and sure to intensify) debates over the private and public uses of medical information, the genetic engineering of food (and people), changing legal regimes regarding drug use, the proliferation of pharmaceuticals, itself tied to questions of intellectual property—all of which at least suggests that bio-politics can be contentious rather than dystopian and totalitarian.

I would like to use the term a little differently, perhaps in an even more disturbing sense (or, perhaps, I am simply including more under the concept). In the United States, over the past 15 years, voting patterns have so stabilized as to leave no more than 5% or so of the population as the “swing vote” that will decide the Presidential election. We can be pretty sure that the 2016 election will come down to who wins, at most, 4-5 states—Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Colorado. There are a couple of others, but too small to matter much, and we can really reduce it to Florida and Ohio. This means that we know whom everyone votes for, and I’m going to tell you right now:


Single women
Government employees (excepting police officers and the military—but not necessarily prison guards)
People on welfare or disability
Union members
Trial lawyers
Members of the “helping professions” (social workers, nurses, teachers—not necessarily doctors)


Church going Christians
Married couples with children
Those employed in the private, non-unionized sector

Now, there is plenty of overlap here, and we could put together a very interesting Venn diagram showing which category prevails in the case of a conflict (married black couples with children still vote Democrat, for example; as do white academics and government employees—which is really to say that the categories in the Democratic column siphon off votes from those in the Republican column—otherwise, Republicans would get 70% of the vote); there are some demographics that fall out of these categories and are less “reliable” voting blocks (who knows about unemployed single men in their 20s, for example; Asians lean Democrat but still seem to be wavering, among other, minor, anomalies); and, needless to say, lots of exceptions. But I think these categories hold, for anywhere from 70-90% of the groups in question. And the tendency is for them to harden, for reasons of political pragmatics: if you are a Democrat candidate in a tight race, which is going to seem the better bet: trying to convince 5% of married evangelical women to vote for you, or trying to push your share of single women from 70% up to 80%? The latter is the path of least resistance, requiring the least in terms of compromise or antagonizing other parts of your “base.” From such calculations is the crazed rhetoric of the “War on Women” born.

The point is that politics is becoming “bio” in the additional sense of becoming “demographic.” It would be very interesting to chart changes in the use of the word “demographic” over the past 15 years. I believe such a study would show a shift from referring to “demographics” as something that “is,” as referring to a mapping of the entire population, to “demographic” as something one “has” and does things with—I now regularly see, especially in younger commentators, the use of the phrase “a demographic,” or “their demographic,” as a way of distinguishing one group from others (“demographic” as noun, that is, rather than adjective, as in “demographic composition”… ), thereby replacing older terms like “ethnicities,” which then slides into seeing them as agents, as having moral qualities (the “white male demographic” is, of course, especially reviled), or being possessions that might be deployed in certain ways. This is an important shift because ethnicities (like races) are seen as “natural” groups which, in a mobile, modern society like America get diluted and may shrink, but are beyond the control of politicians—one could speak of winning over the Italian vote, but one would never think of producing more Italians, much less trying to reduce their numbers. But the term “demographic” suggests just such an “elastic” possibility, and it is only a matter of time before the political parties direct their attention away from trying to encroach on the other side’s “demographic “and towards the more basic problem of transforming the demographic make up of the country itself—i.e., adding to its numbers and subtracting from the other’s. In fact, for the Democrats, that time has come, as it is widely acknowledged that their passion for legalizing and naturalizing the tens of millions of illegal aliens presently in the country (and how many more to come?) is a result of a shift in focus from the “white working class” “demographic” lost to the Republicans to the “emerging Hispanic” one. Welfare and related policies, including those dis-incentivizing marriage, can also be seen as bio-political in this sense of producing more of one’s demographic. It is also no coincidence that friends of the left have become comfortable proclaiming the need for certain demographics (elderly whites) to die off so that we can finally pass a crucial threshold in our racial and sexual politics. (Not to mention Islam’s demographic strategy in Europe; or that Israel and the Palestinians have engaged in demographic politics for a long time.)

We’re all familiar with the most infamous 20th century case of trying to increase favored and decrease disfavored “demographics,” so there are still some inhibitions to be overcome here. But we live in an age where inhibitions tumble like dominoes: we look, for the most part untroubled, upon mini (so far) genocides in Africa and Mesopotamia committed by murderous Muslim groups; we have a President who eggs on racial rioters, and takes counsel from a supporter of pogrom-like mob activities; we have protestors who call for the killing of cops, and much more. The inhibitions for the most part hold on the Republican/conservative side, but those may be weakening as well, first of all through a growing obsession with government surveillance, the heroicizing of law-breaking “whistleblowers,” and some cheap anti-cop rhetoric (on the other side of the question, the open contempt recently displayed by the NYPD toward Mayor Di Blasio suggests a lowering of inhibitions regarding civil/police distinctions and lines of command—can it be too long before members of the rank and file military display such contempt for a leftist Commander-in-Chief?). Anyway, it is in the nature of things that one side alone cannot bear the burden of the inhibitions comprising civil society. It is hard to see how, other than through the unlikely prospect of restrictive (and enforced) immigration laws a conservative demographic politics would work on the national level (a “natalist” policy, for example, would seem to come up against too many constitutional and ideological obstacles; one could support pro-marriage policies so as to increase the married “demographic” but marriage requires deferral and discipline so it’s much easier to create policies that increase the single “demographic”), but there is much more promise on the local level. The demographic wars are underway here as well, as the Obama administration pushes policies aimed at breaking up the suburbs and imposing upon them the “demographics” of the cities. Here, though, it is the Left that has the uphill struggle. There is nothing more sacred to the middle class than the “demographics” of their neighborhoods, and people will clear out at the least sign of demographic shift. And they have plenty of tools to fight with. A right-wing demographic politics would involve the creation of enclaves in which demographic balances are assiduously maintained, first of all in subtle ways so as to avoid running afoul of civil rights laws and social consensus, but ultimately less so, through transformation of or defiance of the laws and consensus. We would see the return of something like the restrictive covenants outlawed after World War 2, not necessarily focused on race, but on other demographic markers: criminal background checks, the exclusion of the unmarried, the favoring of those expected to join one of the local congregations, etc. Along with other measures, such as a tight control of school boards and therefore curriculum, it would be possible to produce and maintain the desired demographic. Within this context we could then see overtly natalist policies, or at least social pressure in that direction. Right now pro-life politics makes a point of not distinguishing among “demographics,” to the extent of insisting that the post-Roe abortion regime has entailed a veritable black genocide. Once the prospect of changing national policy and culture on this issue fades, it is likely that pro-lifers will turn their attention to the “demographics” they are most able to influence, and the demographic war will be more fully engaged: one side increasing its demographic through immigration and state subsidization of enlarged “demographics,” and the other through enclaves, even, shall we say “no-go zones,” in which abundant life is celebrated and an armed citizenry (an ascendant “demographic”) makes it difficult for an increasingly bloated and incompetent state to impose its rule. It will not be long before eugenics adds fuel to the fire, with wealthy state and corporate elites and gay and lesbian couples, concerned with distinguishing their own demographic from some of their allied ones, demanding access to the latest in reproductive technologies, and the possibility of healthier, smarter and stronger children will surely entice the more affluent in the suburban enclaves. Bio-politics in the Foucauldian and post-Foucauldian senses I opened this post with would be drawn in as well, given the intense interest in managing life at each step along the way, that is, and creating the behavioral set must likely to reproduce one’s demographic.

At the very least, this “prophecy” involves a hypothesis that we can, in a rough way, test—how strong are those inhibitions on, first, speaking of, and then acting on, “demographics” as malleable objects to be transformed and, if necessary, eliminated. What would it take for us to start speaking of the relative worthiness of life of various forms of life? (Perhaps the current particularizing and spiteful slogan “#blacklivesmatter” will, paradoxically, push us along this path.)

I haven’t explicitly addressed the morality of these possible developments, because it doesn’t seem to me clear-cut. Genocide is an evil form of bio-politics, but trying to distance yourself from, out-reproduce and out-health those who wish to control and exploit your lives is not necessarily so, however uncomfortable it makes the liberal in each of us. It would simply mean that we no longer see conversation and persuasion as the currency of modern civilization, but isn’t that, in the end, an empirical question? Maybe in the next stage of civilization we will let our DNA do the talking.

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