Archive for the ‘biopolitics’ Category

Stephen Harper Wants to Spank Canada

April 28, 2011

The same Conservative government that shut down parliament twice and orchestrated one of the greatest human rights abuses in modern Canadian history, has also attempted to invalidate votes cast in an advance ballot by students at Guelph University. Elections Canada has decided that the 241 advance ballots were, in fact, valid, but that all subsequent advance ballots at universities, implemented to encourage students to more easily engage in the democratic process during the busy exam season, will be shut down for this election. The image of Michael Sona, the communications director for Guelph Conservative candidate Marty Burke, barging into the student voting station and attempting to make off with the ballot box would be comic if it did not typify the conservative orientation to political practice, which is characterized by a flagrant disregard for the central tenants of participatory democracy.

“He tried to grab for the ballot box. I’m not sure he got his hand on the box, but he definitely grabbed for it,” said Brenna Anstett, a student, who at the time of the reported incident was sealing her second of two envelopes containing her vote. (The Record.com)

But what does Harperite cynicism and disrespect for due political practice indicate about the larger socio-political landscape of Canadian? John Meisel of Queen’s University suggests that the “Harperizing of our Minds” has its roots in a political culture based on a top-down model that implements policy from the ideas and mandates of a governmental elite. While Meisel’s article overlooks the way in which progressive agendas such as gay marriage or respect for diverse cultural heritages are grounded in the overlapping concerns of a large portion of the population, it does raise questions about the composition of our post-political society that minimizes democratic participation in favour of cultural or “lifestyle politics.”

This depoliticization works to the benefit of a strong, centralized state that cloaks its hold on power in the guise pastoral care for the population. The modern development that Foucault called the rise of “biopower” turns governance into a form of population management, casting the governed into a largely passive position as the recipients of various programs and policies aimed at fostering the flourishing and productivity of society as a whole. I would argue that this, and not political elitism, is the larger context behind the “top-down” structure of modern politics (political and technocratic elitism being just one of several ideological guises under which biopolitical structures manifest). If this is the case, how are we to understand the popularity of a leader like Harper, whose conservative policies serve to further dismantle social programs, labour protections and other guarantors of communal well-being?

This is where the biopolitical model needs to be coupled with an understanding of the anti-social, capitalist principles that attempt to cast the generation of huge profits for a small minority of shareholders into the guiding principle of economic, and hence social prosperity in current dominant discourses. The incompatibility of the neoliberal economic model with the basic tenets of biopolitics forms the central contradiction of what we might call “biopolitical capitalism,” and provides the ideological milieu in which the popularity of a dictatorial leader like Stephen Harper can be properly understood. For while neoliberalism champions the individualizing and personalizing of risk, it can only do so by liking this privatization — the shifting of the onus for social well being from collectively owned, governmental agencies to private institutions and individuals — to the greater flourishing of society as a whole. This is done by focusing on an image of a “free market economy” as the sole guarantor of social prosperity, and relegating all other issues to a secondary status.

Neoliberal economics demands the privatization and degrading of collectively-funded projects aimed at providing material well being for citizens, while simultaneously strengthening government’s surveillance and control of the people in the service of transnational capital. In place of social equity and security for the most vulnerable, neoliberal governments offer increased policing and incarceration for the growing poor, while the less poor suffer the radical instability of a volatile and irrational capitalist market whose “invisible hand” has been systematically reorganizing global politics for the last forty years in the interests of a tiny minority of extremely wealthy elites. In this context, the biopolitical function of government, coopted by capital, is focused almost exclusively on one function: guaranteeing the reproduction of a cheap, available labour force. The mounting sense of anxiety over loss of job security, erosion of living standards, compromised healthcare and familial support — not to mention degraded cultural institutions and educational systems — translates into a feeling of existential uncertainty and fear whose underlying causes are then disguised and deflected onto the ideology of the “free market” as the final term dictating the health and welfare of communities, countries and individuals.

This climate of fear coupled with ideological obfuscation encourages popular desire for strong, authoritarian leadership whose central platform of economic stewardship promises to lead the country through its difficulties. The cynicism and “realpolitik” exhibited by Harper’s government speaks to a concealed intuition, shared by explicit Conservatives and the merely apathetic alike, that democratic politics has been all but hollowed out by rampant economism. The belief that no alternatives are possible to global capitalism cements this cynism and anxiety, leading to a covert respect for authoritarian figures who are able to “tell it like it is.”

"Which version of the free market would you like us to beat you with?"


Under these circumstances, the biopolitical function of government gradually transmutes into a sado-masochistic relationship between the people and their leaders, a tendency that can be detected, not just in a figure like Harper, but in popular television shows like CBC’s Dragon’s Den and other reality shows. The popular draw of both Conservative politics and reality TV is grounded in the domination of a striving, utopian impulse by a stern and dictatorial “reality principle.” What has been described by Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff as “the politics of fear” might thus be more accurately characterized as the strategic management of ressentiment: convincing people to take pleasure in another’s domination as a form of consolation for one’s own unrecognized subjugation.

Slavoj Žižek characterizes the permissive post-modern superego which, rather than dominating by directly forbidding certain paths of action, allows one to follow one’s forbidden desires by displacing responsibility for them onto an authoritarian figure:

Although, on the surface, the totalitarian master…issues stern orders compelling us to renounce pleasure and to sacrifice ourselves in some higher cause, his effective injunction, discernible between the lines, is a call to unconstrained transgression. Far from imposing on us a firm set of standards to be complied with, the totalitarian master suspends (moral) punishment. His secret injunction is: ‘You may.’ He tells us that the prohibitions which regulate social life and guarantee a minimum of decency are worthless, just a device to keep the common people at bay – we, on the other hand, are free to let ourselves go, to kill, rape, plunder, but only insofar as we follow the master. The London Review

This characterization perfectly describes Steven Harper’s political strategy. By reducing the complexity of democratic governance to a single issue, Harper gives his supporters license to engage in the kind of anti-social — one might even say sociopathic — behaviour that the biopolitical model of contemporary society would not, by its own precepts, allow. With The Economy as their stern Master or Mistress, conservative supporters can freely indulge their desires to oppress women, the poor, immigrants and other vulnerable segments of the population by systematically dismantling the programs and protections whose democratic articulation and institution have been the product of centuries-long struggle.

Should we, then, look to the failure of Canada’s Liberal party to circumvent Harper’s strategic appeal to what is actually a structurally produced political disengagement as evidence of a Frankfurt School-type argument for the latent totalitarian character of modern Western rationality and culture? I would look rather to the strong tone of critique that is present in both the embattled left and in popular vocalizations of dissent circulating through the new media, in cafe and dinner table conversations, and on university campuses such as Guelph’s. Though the line separating liberal democracy from a totalitarian biopolitical-capitalist state may be difficult to draw, Canada’s historical socialist tendencies have seem to preserved at least the possibility for a position of critique that could save us from a Conservative majority in the coming election. The recent and surprising rise in NDP support is a strong indicator that socialism has not been entirely undermined by neoliberal economic fear mongering. The conservatives also seem to have underestimated the extent to which a younger generation, weaned on alternative media and perhaps inspired by the recent political upheavals in the Middle East, might sieze on this moment to flex their political muscle in favour of a more just and democratic Canadian society.

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Genocide as Metaphor, and the University as Political Space

October 17, 2010

The most recent Canadian episode in the ongoing debate over the right of anti-abortion groups to display graphic images on university campuses has been unfolding in Ottawa at Carlton University where five anti-abortion activists were arrested on Monday, Oct. 4th for refusing to remove signage that compares abortion with acts of genocide. Banning the images, claims the protesters, is a violation of their freedom of expression. They go further to argue that the images are not being banned because they are offensive, but because of the anti-abortion cause that they represent. A similar claim was made by the Youth Protecting Youth student organization at University of Victoria, B.C., who were denied club status by the student union, and had to fight a legal battle to have their status and funding reinstated (the university and club reached a settlement in July 2010).

This controversy raises interesting questions about the university as a politicized space. University students across Ontario will be familiar with the poster vendor Imanginus that sets up displays in student centres several times a year. The incursion of these images, which run the gambit from high art, to popular film, to commodified images of women and cars, have yet to produce an outcry from students that such imagery infringes on their right to enjoy the common spaces of the universtiy. The poster sales are largely accepted as part of the on-going commercialization of common space on university campuses, as is the selling of advertising spots in campus washrooms, where cell phone companies pitch a better deal on text messages while male students return the liquid deposit on the last two pints of beer they just drank.

I agree with the anti-abortionists that the reason they are discriminated against is that a large number of people disagree with the political position they are attempting to represent with their imagery. Abortion is an issue that triggers strong political divisions and emotional responses (the psychology of which has not, to my knowledge, been adequately investigated). Groups like the protesters at Carlton are no doubt aware of this, and they have chosen to display imagery designed to provoke a strong response. While one of the protesters claimed (on CBC radio) to be showing the “reality” of abortion, what they have in fact produced with the 8’ by 4’ images is a visual metaphor to express the strong feelings they have against the practice of abortion. These images are metaphoric rather than an “accurate” representation, because abortion is not genocide; the protesters use of this term can only be a polemic and non-literal application.

Genocide is the attempt to systematically kill an entire population due to their perceived ethnic, racial or national affiliation, and is motivated by complicated social, political and psychological factors which a number of modern thinkers, like Hannah Arendt and Arjun Appaduri, have struggled to articulate. While such campaigns do, by definition, include the youth and even the unborn in their targets, age alone is not a determining factor in genocide. Depicting abortion practices in this way thus grossly misrepresents and distorts actual, historical instance of genocide. The protesters need to recognize this, and to adjust how they represent their actions to the media.

A less generous interpretation of the protester’s choice of imagery would read the posters as symptomatic, as indicative of an unresolved contradiction within the psyche of the protesters themselves. Why, despite clear historical evidence to the contrary, do these individuals choose to understand abortion as genocide? Perhaps their setting upon this term reflects an apprehension of the dehumanizing aspects of modern medical systems of power and knowledge, which, in their most destructive aspects, can reduce human beings to mere mechanical placeholders in an impersonal, technical formula. Modern biopolitical models of power, as Hardt and Negri argue, infiltrate individuals to the level of drives and biological processes, and tend to discount the actual subjective experience and agency of its subjects. Perhaps an intuition of this lack of recognition of sentience on the part of biopolitical society is being projected onto a suitable (because mute) subject by anit-abortionists. The unborn human fetus becomes a receptacle for the anxiety people feel over the incursion of biopolitical power into their own lives and subjectivity. Put simply, the modern state, in its most oppressive aspects, refuses to recognize the agency of its subjects in a manner akin to the way anti-abortionists claim society refuses to recognize the sentience and agency of the unborn child. What needs to be investigated is the nature of the cathexis between abortion activists and the potential, unformed human life with which they identify. What projections, identifications and possible disavowals are being hoisted upon the fetus in this discourse?

One response to the anti-abortionist’s use of metaphoric imagery would be to allow them to present these images, but to set up, alongside them, auxiliary displays that educate the public as to the actual, historical instances of genocide, thus providing a historical context to balance the protesters’ distortion of the term. The misrepresentation of history would then become an opportunity for introducing actual politics into the public space of university campuses.

For more arguments about how the Genocide Awareness Project distorts the issues surrounding a woman’s right to control her own body, please follow this link.