The Biopolitics of Utopia
Analyzing Plato’s Kallipolis through Foucault
December 19th, 2016
In modernity, we as participants of cultural societies and citizens of states, as biologies in a globalized ecosystem, are constantly being socialized and mobilized by an amorphous realm deemed the biopolitical. Born out of Foucauldian thought, biopolitics has come to describe the relationship between a sovereign state and the zoe, or biological life, of its subjects. In his piece Right of Death, Michel Foucault chronicles the transition of what he deems the “deductive power” of states, or “the ancient right to take life or let live” to that of biopolitical power, or “a power to foster life or disallow it.” Our definition of biopolitics will be taken directly from Foucault’s piece,
“Deduction has tended to be no longer the major form of power but merely one element among others working to incite, reinforce, control, monitor, optimize, and organize the forces under it: a power bent on generating forces, making them grow and ordering them, rather than one dedicated to impeding them, making them submit, or destroying them.” (Foucault, 136)
Giorgio Agamben coined the term “bare life” in the intro to his piece Homo Sacer. “…bare life, that is, the life of homo sacer [sacred man], who may be killed and yet not sacrificed.” In other words, bare life is constituted by the stripping of an individual to their biological existence. This bare life exists in a metaphysical realm he deems “the state of exception”, a space where bare life is excluded from the polis, and is therefore not under the protection of a sovereign and can be killed with impunity.
“…the decisive fact is that, together with the process by which the exception everywhere becomes the rule, the realm of bare life — which is originally situated at the margins of the political order — gradually begins to coincide with the political realm, and exclusion and inclusion, bios and zoe, right and fact enter into a zone of irreducible indistinction. At once excluding bare life from and capturing it within the political order, the state of exception actually constituted, in its very separateness, the hidden foundation on which the political system rested.”
In his piece Means Without Ends, Agamben aims to posit the Nazi concentration camp as the manifestation of this “ state of exception” as well as the exhibitor of the structural aspects of Foucault’s biopolitical definition. He states, “In other words, if sovereign power is founded on the ability to decide on the state of exception, the camp is the structure in which the state of exception is permanently realized.” His claims are mostly grounded within the aspect of bare life that constitutes it as a life that can be freely annihilated. “It is only because the camps constitute a space of exception-a space in which law is completely suspended-that everything is truly possible in them.” However, positing biopolitics within this structure misses a fundamental aspect of Foucauldian biopower; that which aims to administer, optimize, interfere, and mobilize life as a “generating force”. Agamben’s camp lacks a basal understanding of Foucault’s definition; that the relationship of sovereign to subject is not just its ability to reduce life to mere biology rather that it is the cultivation of bare life and the mobilization of it as labor. Alexander Weheliye in his book Habeas Viscus offers an alternative image,
“Although racial slavery and the Holocaust exhibit the state of exception, they do so in different legal and political ways, since slavery’s purpose was not to physically annihilate, at least not primarily, as much as to physiologically subdue and exploit, erasing the bios of those subjects that were subject to its workings.” (37)
In other words, Weheliye posits the plantation, specifically that of the antebellum south as the model for biopolitics, citing the plantation’s aim to reduce individuals to bare life and, “physiologically subdue and exploit” it rather than just to eliminate it. By using Foucault’s original definition to examine models of antebellum slave management, we can establish that the plantation, as a form, is a more accurate depiction of the deep structures of biopolitics than Agamben’s camp, since it is founded upon the optimization of bare life by a dominant force for the purpose of exploiting its faculties for labor, rather than reducing it simply to that which can be annihilated. In an effort to better depict the plantation model as a biopolitical structure, we will be examining Socrates’ utopia, the Kallipolis that is described in The Republic of Plato. By contextualizing the Kallipolis in this newly defined biopolitical framework, we will then question whether or not Plato’s utopia behaves like a biopolitical dystopia, attempt to discover whether or not biopower is inherent to the functionality of Plato’s city and reevaluate the sanctity of this text as a seminal work of political philosophy.
Firstly, it is important to position the plantation and the concentration camp within a historical context,“Paul Gilroy, for instance, draws attention to both the conceptual contiguity of the plantation and the camp in their suspension of law in the name of the law, while also showing how the camp emerged from assorted forms of colonial domination.” (Weheliye, 37) The plantation and its subsequent post-bellum convict camps both played a role in inspiring Nazi concentration camps. The plantation and convict camps were built on a fundamental understanding of “the other” as “less than”, quite similarly to the establishment of concentration camps, and were, as Paul Gilroy stated, spaces in which humanitarian laws were suspended in the name of the laws of property ownership and justice. However, the camp as a space emphasized the deductive power over life (as seen by its inclusion of gas chambers) that, though it was indeed allowed by law in the antebellum south, was not necessarily common-place practice since slaves were investments. This essential difference is reminiscent of the first point of Foucault’s definition: the power of deduction over life is simply one piece to the whole that is biopower. Masters on antebellum plantations considered themselves to be responsible for the well being of their slaves. At the time, pamphlets were made for the purpose of advising slave masters in ideal slave management,
“…the ends aimed at in building Negro cabins should be first, the health and comfort of the occupants; secondly the convenience of nursing, surveillance, discipline and the supply of food and water…Their houses should be provided with large glass windows… light and air are necessary to the proper making of good blood. “ Virginia Plantation owner, 1856. (Dal Lago & Katsari, 190)
The administration of a slave’s health was essential to proper slave management. Weather appropriate clothing was provided in order to prevent sickness. Though rare, some estates had health care facilities built on the plantation. A rice planter in South Carolina, Plowden C. Weston, wrote in 1857, “All sick persons are to stay in the hospital night and day, from the time they first complain to the time they are able to go to work again.”A Georgia planter wrote an award winning essay in 1852 that detailed what a good slave diet was comprised of,
“…the allowance of now given per week to each hand — men, women, boys and girls that are large enough to go in the fields to work — is five pounds of good clean bacon and one quart of molasses, with as much good bread as they require; and in the fall…the addition of one pint of strong coffee, sweetened with sugar, every morning before going to work.
Though this details what a slave master should provide for, slaves were also given private plots of land so that they may cultivate their own food. This provided the slaves with fresh vegetables, was seen as a moral booster in that it gave the slaves something of their own to cultivate, and saved the slave masters some money, since he was able to reduce his paid contributions to the slaves’ diets. In other instances, plantation cooks were hired so that a slave’s diet could be properly monitored and adjusted in order to increase the slave’s efficacy. It is important to understand that, “…southern masters’ sought to convey an image of themselves as the protectors and benefactors of the slave population under their control.” This mentality is what allowed slave owners to justify the practice of slavery, and will be essential to our analysis of Plato later on. In addition to having their health administered and monitored, slaves were also indoctrinated with Christianity, being required to attend pro-slavery sermons that stressed the duty of being obedient. Interference on the level of reproduction was also advised, and marriage of the most gainful slaves was encouraged in order to create a highly productive, self reproducing workforce.
The specificity in the designing of “negro-cabins” so that they allow for “surveillance, discipline, and the supply of food and water”, diet monitoring, health care, and reproductive interference, as well as other tactics of control were employed in order to surveil, monitor and optimize the plantation’s work force for the purposes of exploiting their biological labor. These examples of how slaves were ideally managed embody what Foucault defines as biopolitical, especially Foucault’s descriptions of “The Disciplines” and “Anatomo-Politics” which are as follows,
“[The Disciplines] centered on the body as machine- its disciplining, the optimization of its capabilities, the extortion of its forces, the parallel increase of its usefulness and its docility, its integration into systems of efficient and economic controls. [Anatamo-Politics] focused on the species body, the body imbued with the mechanics of life […] propagation, births and mortality, the level of health, life expectancy and longevity.” (Foucault, 139)
The slave’s body was interfered with on the anatomo-political level, and stripped down to the body of the disciplines, that which is mechanized, optimized, extorted and integrated into systems of economic control. The repurposing of these bodies as labor machines, is made possible by the system’s degradation of the slave to bare life, through a means which Orlando Patterson deems “social death.”
“…the definition of the slave, however recruited, as a socially dead person. Alienated from all ‘rights’ or claims of birth, he ceased to belong in his own right to any legitimate social order.”(Patterson, 5)
Social death is necessary to the process of reducing a social body to bare life. It is a tool of the dominating force, the “one person, capable of exercising, with impunity, total power over another.” “Slaves differed from human beings in that they were not allowed freely to integrate the experience of their ancestors into their lives, to inform their understanding of social reality with inherited meanings of their natural forbearers.” Slaves of all ages could be bought and sold at anytime, and inter-slave relationships, even between children and parents, were not seen as legitimate or legally binding. By depriving the slave of their right to history, to their cultural context, as well as their rights to stable family relations, their existence as a social form is whittled down to a mere biological force, without reference or role, and without purpose. “Without the master the slave does not exist, and he is socializable only through his master.” Simultaneously, it is within the sovereign’s power to resocialize this naked biology as it chooses, whether that be for the perceived good of the subject or to the advantage of the dominant power. In Plato’s utopia, the governing body or the “guardians” rely upon this process of social death as a means of repurposing the bodies in the city according to their (perceived) nature, and generating ideal citizens.
In the Kallipolis, the people in the city are divided up into three groups: the guardians, the auxiliaries, and the craftsmen. The guardians are the rulers of the city and make all the decisions for the well being of its citizens. The auxiliaries are the protectors of the city, while the craftsmen are the makers and producers of all things necessary to keep the city functioning. This structure exemplifies harmony, with each moving part acting independently while simultaneously functioning in conjunction with each other. Though this vision of utopia has the appearance of harmonious community, the methods which Plato uses to establish it as such involves a great deal of biopolitical interference. Firstly, it is established that each person has a nature that can be determined and measured by their mixture of “gold, silver, and bronze.” The metals are signifiers for the quality of their nature, gold being the best and most worthy of ruling, and so on. Surprisingly, Plato demonstrates that, “Men and women, therefore, also have the same nature with respect to guarding a city, except insofar as the one is weaker and the other stronger.” So though he says that women are weaker, he does not discount their ability to rule. The natures are essential to determining what role in the city each person will play. In order to determine these natures, each person is watched closely from birth, and trained in the skills of music and gymnastics. Therefore, the genders are mixed together in their quotidian lives and study the skills dictated by the guardians equally. Because some have better natures than others, Plato proposes very strict regulation when it comes to reproduction,
“…there is a need for the best men to have intercourse as often as possible with the best women, and the reverse for the most ordinary men with the most ordinary women: and the offspring of the former must be reared but not that of the others, if the flock is going to be of the most eminent quality. And all this must come to pass without being noticed by anyone except the rulers themselves if the guardians’ herd is to be as free as possible from faction.” (Plato, 459e.)
This is reminiscent of the breeding of gainful and physically superior slaves by slave masters in order to create the perfect worker. This emblematizes the underlying biopolitical agenda of Plato’s city, and characterizes the optimizational aspect of Foucault’s definition.
To ensure that no person’s nature is corrupted, there are no traditional family structures within the city,
“All these women are to belong to all these men in common, and no woman is to live privately with any man. And the children, in their turn, will be common, and neither will a parent know his own offspring, nor a child his parent.” (Plato, 457d.)
No individual owns anything or anyone. Similarly to slaves on the plantation, each person has no ties to their birth and no ancestral context. They are stripped of their familial relations, and are rendered socially blank. Plato proposes that, “..all the children born in the tenth month, and in the seventh, from the day a man becomes a bridegroom he will call the males sons and females daughters…” This establishes that those that bare children will equally be parent of every child conceived at the same time as theirs, and every child born at the same time will call each other sibling. This is how Plato negates nuclear familial bonds and provides a failsafe to prevent incest. Incest will not be tolerated, and parents are warned to be “especially careful never to let even a single foetus see the light of day, if one should be conceived, and, if one should force its way, to deal with it on the understanding that there’s to be no rearing for such a child.” In this moment, Plato seems to be advocating for the forced abortion of children born of incest because they are unauthorized and unnatural. If born the child is not fostered, and it is implied that it will be killed.
“So, I think, they will take the offspring of the good and bring them into the pen to certain nurses who live a part in a certain section of the city. And those of the worse, and any of the others born deformed, they will hide away in unspeakable and unseen place, as is seemly.” (Plato, 460c.)
The children that are the offspring of the good are fostered by the guardians in the hopes that they will become guardians themselves. From birth, their nurturing is heavily monitored, mothers are supervised as they nurse the children. No mother nurses her specific child, and there are devices in place so that no mother will recognize her own. Much like the plantation, there is a great deal of surveillance, and the children are put through various tests and observed, measuring their excellence in music and gymnastics. Those that are exceptional, will be fostered and established as guardians and auxiliaries, while the children who are of a bronze nature will have their talents, in terms of craft, perfected and will be cast into the city to become craftsmen. This practice exemplifies Foucault’s notion of the administration and fostering of life.
On the plantation, the lives of the slaves are interfered with in order to create a self-generating, self-reproducing, and to some degree self-sustainable workforce. In the utopia, it is much the same, the goal of this structure being that there is a self-replicating society that exists eternally and cyclically. It is a city built upon the fostering of some and the expulsion of others, by paternalistic guardians who consider themselves benefactors of a populus rife with self determination and naivete, which all too well resembles the masters of slaves. Children, in Plato’s city, are the embodiment of bare life and undergo a most violent form of social death. From their births they are merely zoe, common to both state and citizen while simultaneously lacking in political worth, unconstituted by any social order. They can be disposed of as nothing, because they are nothing. It is only by being socialized into the body politic by the guardians, that they gain purpose and therefore, value. The labor of those whose lives are interfered with biopolitically are mobilized in such a way that everything the person labors in is of and for the good of the state. Nothing is extraneous, nothing opulent, merely life, zoe, in the service of life itself, the life of the city as a way of living. Though, the plantation profits monetarily off of the direct subjugation of its workforce, the city similarly prospers due to the arrangement of people in hierarchical class structures, which relegates some to the bottom and raises others to the top. Those that are deemed to not be fit for the city are eliminated, the sick left to die, the deformed and products of incest, killed and brought to “unseen places”. Plato argues in Book VIII of the Republic that the creation of a body with no purpose is the greatest evil a city can commit. However, the very city he creates is founded upon this notion of excluding those that are rendered useless by their nature or the circumstances of their birth. Agamben states, “…bare life has the peculiar privilege of being that whose exclusion founds the city of men.” Plato’s city is a city made possible only by the exclusion of entities labeled as undesirable, who by their socially relegated existence as bare life are killed with impunity. It is those that remain who are forced to undergo social death in order to be reconditioned as useful to the prosperity of the sovereignty that is the polis. Plato’s city exploits the bios and zoe of its citizen for the good of the body politic. Those within are enslaved by the very nature of the city itself, stripped of their individuality and claims to birth, their labor and intellectual forces mobilized in service of the continuation of the state. Thus Plato’s apparent utopia, much more resembles that of the false community exemplified by the plantation, relying upon the subjugation of its peoples, pointing to the possibility that it behaves more like a biopolitical Dystopia than a utopian ideal.
The Kallipolis is born out of an attempt to rhetorically construct an ideal situation of justice. As we have, established, when viewing the city through the plantation model, it does not appear to exemplify a contemporary idea of justice. So, how would Socrates (and Plato, but we’ll speak through Socrates the character) distance his city from the injustice that is the plantation? Firstly, he would most likely be unperturbed by the aspect of racial subjugation, considering those outside of the polis were not considered to have valuable life. But, Socrates’ main point of differentiation would be that the plantation is a form of capitalist sophistry, one that twists the laws of human rights, the orderly, philosophical nature of his city, and subsequently the soul, into a means of production and money earning. Though it is debatable as to whether or not Socrates views the people in his city as property of the city, Socrates would likely cite private property as the driving force behind the evils of the plantation. Therefore, he would consider it to be a distortion of his model of utopia. Since the abolition of the right to property is so insular to his idea itself, he would emphatically place blame upon the capitalist structures that allow for the manipulation of ideal communalism for monetary gain. He would argue, that guardians or the Philosopher King controls his city in the ways described because he knows it must be done in order to achieve harmony and the form of justice. Because the Philosopher king compels those with philosophical natures to look up and those with crafty inclinations to bind themselves to the craft inherent to their nature, he is liberating the subjects from their earthly desires, those that threaten to enslave them, eradicating the soul of what is bad in the place of the good. As detailed in Book IIII of the Republic, music is essential to the education of the guardians because it teaches the importance of harmonious parts working independently in order to create unification. Music and intention seems to be what drives the wedge between the plantation and the Kallipolis. Though the guardians play chess with their people, it is ultimately so that they may achieve the best forms of themselves. Pure tonalities, when aligned with equal distancing resonate with each other most beautifully. But a dissonant chord, forces two inharmonious tones together in an illusion of harmony. It still creates unification structurally, but it does not resonate beautifully. This is how the plantation behaves, and creates an illusion of community. Even though it operates in the same ways as the plantation in terms of its biopolitics, it does so not by creating harmony amongst people but by forcing together that which is inharmonious through coercion and bondage. But this in turn begs the question “Is there a form of slavery?” If we are to operate under the definition of slavery that is “excessive dependence on or devotion to something” so much so that you become bonded by it, how do we account for coercion and forced domination of beings? Is there an absolute truth to the notion of bondage? Or is bondage simply of this earth? Perhaps the answer can be found in Socrates’ analysis of the tyrannical man. That because he is enslaved by his desires, he is in turn enslaving those around him in order to achieve that which he desires. Enslavement is a product of his own slavery. But is there an absolute to evil or is it merely constituted by ideals of what freedom should be?
From a modern perspective, it is easy to pity the shoemaker. He is compelled to be bonded to a job that is determined for him, not of his own volition, but due to the faculties his nature provides him with. Our contemporary perspectives of individualism, self determination, and self actualization conflict with the notion that anyone or anything could dictate where and how we are to move through society as social beings. The craftsman is fixed at a point between that which is bare life and that which is sovereign, being restricted to a single task his whole life but fundamentally, one that is inherent to his natural inclinations. He will always be proficient and have purpose, he will always be useful and therefore he will always be happy. It is easy to be disturbed by his lack of choice. But the reality is, we are the craftsmen. From birth and throughout our lives, we are being socially conditioned by our circumstantial placement in society. The level of interference by sovereignty has become so normalized into our conceptions of what is, that the idea of choice has become almost rendered null. We are conditioned by our ancestral and historical fixations, by our existence as numerical values in a database, by the biological norms that are forced upon us, so much so that we cannot distinguish who we are from who we should be. We exist with an illusion of choice and control over ourselves. Perhaps it is because we have seen the plantation, and seen the dangers that can come from an absolute power’s subjugation of people’s biologies and labor as a force, that we as modernists cannot fathom the idea of a community where we are not in control of our own bodies and destinies. The plantation phenomena constitutes the very existence of biopolitics itself. But without such a blatant examples of human fallibility and especially one that so obviously relies upon manipulation, violence, and extortion of people, would we even be aware of the men behind the curtain whose control is ushering us towards our best versions of ourselves? One cannot say for certain whether or not Plato creates a political utopia worth realizing. What’s truly irreconcilable with Plato’s utopia is that the expression of self is circumscribed far beyond the parameters of Foucault’s notion of let live or let die. What it means to be alive is challenged, manipulated, and dictated. The social freedom we aspire to involves an individual’s feeling of autonomy within the collective. But what is apparent and worthy of consideration is that he does offer an alternative to succumbing to the circumstances of our social orders. By ordering ourselves in accordance with that which is, rather that which is constructed for us, and fostering our own lives by means of our own interference and optimization through self discipline, we can alleviate ourselves from the obstructive aspects of conventional freedom and become the sovereign of our own zoe and bios.
Foucault, Michel. “Right Of Death .” The History of Sexuality: Michel Foucault, Vintage Books, New York, 1990.
Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press, 1998.
Agamben, Giorgio et al. Means without End: Notes on Politics. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2000.
Enrico Dal Lago and Constantina Dal Lago & Katsari, “Ideal Models of Slave Management in the RomanWorld and in the Ante-bellum American South,” in Dal Lago, Enrico and Dal Lago & Katsari, Constantina. Slave Systems: Ancient and Modern. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008, 187–21.
Plato, and Allan Bloom. The Republic of Plato. New York: Basic, 1991. Print.
“Definition of Slavery.” Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford Dictionaries, n.d. Web. 15 Dec.