One of my summer projects is to work up my SPEP paper from last year, which used the school desegregation decisions (like Brown v. Board) as a way to think about the relations between juridical power and biopower in the courts. The role of the courts in the transition from hegemonic juridical power to hegemonic biopower hasn’t been studied a lot, and the tendency is to dismiss the courts as institutions along with juridical power. The centrality of the judiciary in school desegregation convinced me that there’s more to be said, however. Current litigation about whether corporate entities can use rights claims to deny contraceptive insurance coverage to their female employees seems to bear that intuition out. So I’ve been reading, and one thing that didn’t particularly strike me until now is the complexity of the relation between school desegregation policy in the U.S. and what Foucault calls a “race war” at the end of Society must be Defended.
To recall, Foucault defines sovereign power as the power to kill or let live; biopower inverts the formulation into the power to “make live or let die” (SMD 241), and manifests itself in disciplinary power and efforts to optimize the “population.” Racism emerges as Foucault is talking about the signs of the emergence of biopower, and what happens to sovereign power. According to Foucault, sovereign power, when made biopolitical, basically becomes state racism. Such racism has two main functions. First, it is “a way of introducing a break into the domain of life that is under power’s control: the break between what must live and what must die” (254); second, as a form of rhetorical optimization: the death of the racialized other “will make life in general healthier” (255). His clear focus is Nazism; he refers back to early 20c eugenic practices, and then suggests that for the Nazis:
“Exposing the entire population to universal death was the only way it could truly constitute itself as a superior race and bring about its definitive regeneration once other races had been either exterminated or enslaved forever” (260).
One way to apply this analysis to the U.S., as vigorously demonstrated by Dell McWhorter, is to show the eugenic and scientific pretenses of U.S. racism, and its fundamental consistency (and even interaction with) Nazi policies.
A way less explored is by way of the Cold War. To participate in an arms race, one possible outcome of which is global thermonuclear war, is of course to expose the entire population to universal death as a constitutive aspect of its existence. Foucault accordingly presents the atomic bomb as “a paradox that is difficult, if not impossible, to get around” (253). The paradox is that nuclear weapons present not just the power to kill “in accordance with the rights that are granted to any sovereign, millions and hundreds of millions of people (after all, that is traditional).” They also are “the power to kill life itself” and are “capable of suppressing life itself. And therefore [it must] suppress itself insofar as it is the power that guarantees life” (253). In other words, for most of the cold war, the actual use of nuclear weapons was unthinkable. This, indeed, was the point of deterrence theory, which was premised on the credible threat of inevitable retaliation for a nuclear transgression. The U.S. relied on a “strategic triad” of silo ICBMs, long range bombers, and nuclear submarines for its second strike capability, as well as supporting apparatus like the presence of a nearly-continuously airborne jet containing a four-star general with the launch codes. The Soviets apparently had a “doomsday machine” buried deep under Moscow that would automatically issue a retaliatory strike. As a result of such “mutually assured destruction,” a nuclear attack would be suicidal for the regime initiating it.
In Foucauldian terms, then, sovereign power and biopower intersect in the development of a weapon that cannot be used in a display of power (contra the logic of sovereignty). Instead, its non-use guarantees the life of the nation (and the race, and probably even the human race), even as developing a nuclear weapon pretty much guarantees an arms race (successful deterrence requires relative symmetry in weapons capabilities), and exposes the population to the risk of complete destruction, quite possibly accidentally (see also this song).
In the context of desegregation (and here we are at the beginning of the cold war, where the rhetoric is more in terms of a struggle over ways of life than in avoiding nuclear winter), Mary Dudziak extensively documents the degree to which civil rights gains generally, and desegregation specifically, were deeply intertwined with the struggle against the Soviets. The details of Jim Crow and the systemic violence inflicted on African Americans (including returning WWII veterans) made the U.S. look hypocritical in its advocacy of democracy and rights, and news accounts of the American “Negro Problem” made frequent appearance in Soviet and anti-American propaganda. Since the Cold War was being waged at the periphery – a contest for the allegiance of “yellow and brown” peoples in Asia, Africa, and China – a global perception of American white supremacy presented a serious problem. Dudziak cites as exemplary a 1952 government report proposing that “in South and Southeast Asia, anti-colonialism and associated racial resentments have been far more important elements in the psychological situation than anti-communism” and that in “underdeveloped nations,” “the memory or actuality of domination by the white man is a far greater psychological reality than the Soviet menace” (qt. p. 56).
In briefs and other documents around the desegregation cases, then, the Justice Department precisely presented the need for desegregation as critical to support for “democracy” as a bios – as a “way of life.” According to the documents Dudziak cites, this rhetoric was constant, not just in the government’s briefs (themselves unusual – the DOJ had historically not submitted briefs in cases where the federal government was not a party) in Brown, but in earlier segregation cases. And the Truman administration had been looking warily at the damage done to the U.S. image abroad by accounts of lynchings and other evidence of the U.S. failure to live up to its own rhetoric about democratic equality. Although the government had tried to suppress its critics (ranging from W.E.B. Dubois to Josephine Baker) by making their international travel difficult, it had become clear that the advertising campaign needed an actual accomplishment. Hence the government’s brief in Brown argued that school segregation had been “singled out for hostile foreign comment in the United Nations and elsewhere. Other peoples cannot understand how such a practice can exist in a country which professes to be a staunch supporter of freedom, justice and democracy” (qt. 101). Thus, government must “treat each of our people as an American, and not as a member of a particular group classified on the basis of race or some other constitutional irrelevancy” (qt. 100).
The Court of course made no reference to international opinion in its decision, but Dudziak notes that the Justices had extensive foreign travel, had fielded direct questions about segregation on those travels, and had even expressed sympathy with that line of argument; as Justice Warren put it in a speech to the American Bar Association, the “extent to which we maintain the spirit of our Constitution with its Bill of Rights, will in the long run do more to make it both secure and the object of adulation than the number of hydrogen bombs we stockpile” (qt p. 106).
Students of critical race theory will note that this sounds a lot like evidence to support Derrick Bell’s interest convergence hypothesis – according to which minorities only make progress in civil rights when it’s convenient for white people that they do so. Bell advanced the theory at least as early as 1980 (when the “Interest Convergence Dilemma” paper appeared in the Harvard Law Review; Dudziak cites both it and a 1976 paper for linking the Cold War to civil rights), and he cites Dudziak’s book as evidence to support the theory in Silent Covenants (2004).
From the point of view of Foucault’s lectures, I think the evidence vindicates his general point about the centrality of race to biopower, at least in this instance, but it underscores at least three less obvious points. First, we need to resist the urge to read “race” too reductively, as (only) a question of skin color. Foucault suggests as much in his lecture, when he cites colonialism as the original point of modern racism and notes that racialization becomes a way to biologize deviation in general; “once the mechanism of biopower was called upon to make it possible to execute or isolate criminals, criminality was conceptualized in racist terms. The same applies to madness, and the same applies to various abnormalities” (258). Racism in biopower “appeals to the principle that the death of others makes one biologically stronger insofar as one is a member of a race or a population, insofar as one is an element in a unitary living totality” (258). Hence the various State Department cables imploring the need for the U.S. to present a unified front to the world, hiding from view its racial problems (and when that couldn’t be done, presenting the U.S. as making inexorable progress toward resolving them), and justifying its harassment and intimidation of critics like Baker.
Second, one should emphasize the extent to which biopower was reactive. Antonio Negri emphasizes repeatedly (this is the core of the autonomist thesis) that class struggle drives changes in the capitalist system (contra traditional Marxist theory says that the economy determines things “in the last instance”), even in an age of biopower. The desegregation of schools became an institutional necessity – it became in the interest of whites – when the forces of democracy needed something to say to their international critics. This reality was perceived both by the NAACP – which referred to the international situation in its briefs – and by those who resisted racial equality legislation, such as the Georgia Senator Dudziak quotes (p. 89) as suggesting that such legislation wouldn’t be a victory against Soviet propaganda, but a capitulation to it, since it was no doubt communist agitators who caused the whole kerfuffle anyway.
Finally, and here I am being somewhat speculative because I don’t know the primary texts that well, it is probably worth considering the extent to which the cold war was a fundamentally racialized phenomenon, in the specific sense Foucault is using the term here. Adherence to one cause or another was considered to be so fundamental as to be both necessary and sufficient to define a population, and things like national boundaries functioned as markers of “race” in this broad sense. One set of evidence is perhaps again military: there was considerable debate during the Cold War about the moral permissibility of “population targeting” with nuclear weapons, rather than aiming them at putative military targets. That logic was repeated at more local levels; as William Spanos pointed out (with reference to Heidegger and Foucault), it’s how we need to understand the napalming of entire villages in Vietnam. The other evidence is in the rhetoric of the State Department and other official outlets that presented the Cold War as a struggle for the “hearts and minds” of people – particularly non-white ones in Asia and Africa.