Foucault famously proposed that biopolitics - the power to foster life, or allow it to die - tended to produce its own outside in the form of state racism: not only might life be allowed to die, but there might be those who must die, literally or metaphorically, so an inside “we” could live. That is, it is primarily 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” (Society must be Defended, 254). Note the subtle elision: there is life that is allowed to die, and then there is also life that must die. Thus, “if you want to live, they must die” (255) becomes the message. In other words, biopolitics produces two forms, almost simultaneously. Foucault is thinking of 1930s fascism, where (for example), the German emphasis on the health of the ethnically-German population was coupled with the extermination of European Jews.
But there’s an analogue, however imprecise, in the Presidential election last week. In it, we saw two versions of biopolitics. On the one hand, Clinton ran on a campaign of building a better life together, with a particular emphasis on fostering the lives of children and families. The Affordable Care Act would be improved. Paid leave for working parents. And so on. Even her negative ads against Trump emphasized the positive biopolitics: our children are watching. What kind of President do you want them to see? On the Trump side, we saw nothing but Herrenvolk biopolitics: Mexicans, Muslims, African-Americans and women were taking over, making America not great. This had to stop. Law and Order. Our country is at its nadir, thanks to an ineffective, losing President who was probably born in deepest, darkest Kenya anyway. He also somehow founded ISIS, which by the way is winning. China is winning. Everyone but America is winning. But if we keep the Mexican rapists out, and all the Muslims, maybe something good can happen. We will be strong. We will win again. In Messianic tones that Masha Gessen reminds us (this piece is a must read) we should take very seriously, he proclaimed that “I alone” can save you. That almost none of that narrative was true became irrelevant, in the same haunted house in which Clinton’s email server somehow became a darker mark against her character than his many business failings, tax evasions, failures to pay subcontractors, etc.
Two version of biopolitics. In Foucauldian terms, Trump was advocating the return of state racism. At one level, this is an obvious point, given his endless racist rhetoric about Mexicans and Muslims in particular. But liberal commentators, including myself, have tried very hard to explain the Trump victory in other ways. I have decided it can’t be done. The Trump election is fundamentally about the maintenance of White Supremacy, something that women and people of color said a week ago.