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An Advanced Introduction

Thomas Lemke, Monica J. Casper, Lisa Jean Moore

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An Advanced Introduction

Thomas Lemke, Monica J. Casper, Lisa Jean Moore

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The biological features of human beings are now measured, observed, and understood in ways never before thought possible, defining norms, establishing standards, and determining average values of human life. While the notion of “biopolitics” has been linked to everything from rational decision-making and the democratic organization of social life to eugenics and racism, Thomas Lemke offers the very first systematic overview of the history of the notion of biopolitics, exploring its relevance in contemporary theoretical debates and providing a much needed primer on the topic.

Lemke explains that life has become an independent, objective and measurable factor as well as a collective reality that can be separated from concrete living beings and the singularity of individual experience. He shows how our understanding of the processes of life, the organizing of populations and the need to “govern” individuals and collectives lead to practices of correction, exclusion, normalization, and disciplining. In this lucidly written book, Lemke outlines the stakes and the debates surrounding biopolitics, providing a systematic overview of the history of the notion and making clear its relevance for sociological and contemporary theoretical debates.

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NYU Press


Life as the Basis of Politics

State Biology: From Organicist Concepts to Racist Concepts

Although the concept of biopolitics has now become familiar, it may not be widely known that it has nearly a hundred-year history. Its initial appearance was as part of a general historical and theoretical constellation. By the second half of the 19th century, Lebensphilosophie (the philosophy of life) had already emerged as an independent philosophical tendency; its founders were Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche in Germany and Henri Bergson in France. The individual Lebensphilosophen (philosophers of life) represented quite diverse theoretical positions. They shared, however, the reevaluation of “life” and its adoption as a fundamental category and normative criterion of the healthy, the good, and the true. Life—understood as bodily fact or organic existence, as instinct, intuition, feeling, or “experience” (Erlebnis)—was opposed to the “dead” and the “petrified,” which were represented by the “abstract” concept, “cold” logic, or the soulless “spirit.” The concept of life served as a standard by which processes perceived as adversarial to life, such as processes of rationalization, civilization, mechanization, and technologization, were subjected to critical examination.
The concept of biopolitics emerged in this intellectual setting at the beginning of the 20th century. The Swedish political scientist Rudolf KjellĂ©n may have been among the first to employ it.1 KjellĂ©n, until his death in 1922 a professor at the University of Uppsala, had an organicist concept of the state and considered states “super-individual creatures. 
, which are just as real as individuals, only disproportionately bigger and more powerful in the course of their development” (1924, 35). For KjellĂ©n, the natural form of statehood is the nation-state, which expresses the state’s “ethnic individuality” (ibid., 103). The “state as form of life” is ultimately characterized, in his view, by social struggles over interests and ideas articulated by classes and groups. In conjunction with this conviction, KjellĂ©n introduces the concept of biopolitics: “In view of this tension typical of life itself 
 the inclination arose in me to baptize this discipline after the special science of biology as biopolitics; 
 in the civil war between social groups one recognizes all too clearly the ruthlessness of the life struggle for existence and growth, while at the same time one can detect within the groups a powerful cooperation for the purposes of existence” (1920, 93–94).
KjellĂ©n was not alone in understanding the state as a “living organism” or a “living creature.” Many of his contemporaries—political scientists and specialists in public law, as well as biologists and health professionals—conceived of the state as a collective subject that ruled over its own body and spirit. Many of these people saw in politics, economics, culture, and law merely expressions of the same organic powers, which constitute the state and determine its specific characteristics (cf. Selety 1918; UexkĂŒll 1920; Hertwig 1922; Roberts 1938). The organicist concept understands the state not as a legal construction whose unity and coherence is the result of individuals’ acts of free will but as an original form of life, which precedes individuals and collectives and provides the institutional foundation for their activities. The basic assumption is that all social, political, and legal bonds rest on a living whole, which embodies the genuine and the eternal, the healthy, and the valuable. The reference to “life” serves here both as a mythic starting point and as a normative guideline. Furthermore, it eludes every rational foundation or democratic decision-making. From this perspective, only a politics that orients itself toward biological laws and takes them as a guideline can count as legitimate and commensurate with reality.
During the period of National Socialism the antidemocratic, conservative character of the organicist concept of the state acquired a racist bias. The widely used metaphor of “the people’s body” (Volkskörper) at this time designated an authoritarian, hierarchically structured, and racially homogeneous community. There were two central features of the National Socialist conception of state and society. First, it promoted the idea that the subjects of history were not individuals, groups, or classes but self-enclosed communities with a common genetic heritage. This idea was complemented by the assumption of a natural hierarchy of peoples and races according to their different “inherited biological quality,” such that it seemed not only justified but also necessary to treat individuals and collectives unequally. Second, National Socialist ideology rested on the belief that social relations and political problems could ultimately be attributed to biological causes. At the same time, representatives of the regime regularly denied concepts of biological determinism and stressed that natural, organic facts were essentially “historical and spiritual” facts. As a result, education and willpower were regarded as having a decisive meaning for the development of individuals and collectives. In the words of the well-known geneticist Otmar von Verschuer, “Hereditary predisposition means the possibility of reaction. Environment determines which of the given possibilities is realized” (1936, 10).
The National Socialist concept of biopolitics is marked by the constitutive tension between, on the one hand, the idea of life as a fateful power and the site of mythical origin and, on the other hand, the conviction that active modification and control of biological events is possible. To formulate and elaborate its social and political conception of itself, the National Socialist movement made use of many different sources, integrating social Darwinist ideas along with Pan-Germanic and nationalist ideologies. It took up anthropological, biological, and medical concepts and simultaneously stimulated the production of theories and empirical work in these disciplines (see Weingart, Kroll, and Bayertz 1992). Since heterogeneous ideas frequently stand alongside one another in National Socialist texts, it is difficult to speak of a coherent conception of biopolitics. Here I focus only on two general characteristics that decisively marked National Socialist biopolitics: first, the foundation of the biopolitical program in racial hygiene and “hereditary biology” (Erbbiologie) and, second, the combination of these ideas with geopolitical considerations.
Hans Reiter, the president of the Reich Health Department, explained the racial underpinning of “our biopolitics” in a speech in 1934. This speech demonstrated that the representatives of National Socialism regarded biopolitics as a break with classical concepts of politics. Reiter claimed that the past, present, and future of each nation was determined by “hereditary biological” facts. This insight, he said, established the basis for a “new world of thinking” that had developed “beyond the political idea to a previously unknown world view” (1939, 38). The result of this understanding was a new, biologically grounded concept of people and state: “It is inevitable that this course of thought should lead to the recognition of biological thinking as the baseline, direction, and substructure of every effective politics” (ibid.). The goal of this policy consisted of improving the German people’s “efficiency in living” (LebenstĂŒchtigkeit) by a quantitative increase of the population and a qualitative improvement in the “genetic materials” of the German people. In order to achieve this, Reiter recommended negative and positive eugenic practices. Accordingly, inferior offspring were to be avoided, while the regime supported all those who were regarded as “biologically valuable” (ibid., 41). However, National Socialist biopolitics comprised more than “selection” and “elimination.” Laws, regulations, and policies governing racial politics had as their objective not only the regulation and disciplining of reproductive behavior; they also contained responses to the imaginary dangers of “racial mixing.” The development and maintenance of genetic material was, in this light, only possible through protection against the “penetration of foreign blood” and the preservation of the “racial character” of the German people (ibid., 39). Concerns about the purity of the “race” coincided with the battle against internal and external national enemies. At this point, biopolitical ideas join with geopolitical considerations. The combination of the racial political program with the doctrine of Lebensraum (living space) provided the ideological foundation for the imperialist expansion of the Nazi Reich.
The concept of Lebensraum, which was by 1938 at the latest a central element of National Socialist foreign policy, goes back to scientific ideas that had been worked out earlier in the 20th century. The “father” of geopolitics was the German geographer Friedrich Ratzel, who coined the word Lebensraum around the turn of the century. His “anthropogeography” examined the relationship between the motionless Earth and the movements of peoples, in which two geographical factors play a central role: space and position. KjellĂ©n was also familiar with the concept of geopolitics and used it in his political writings.
The most important figure in German geopolitics, however, was Karl Haushofer, who occupied a chair in geography at the University of Munich. Haushofer was Rudolf Hess’s teacher and friend and contributed substantially to the founding of the Zeitschrift fĂŒr Geopolitik (Journal for Geopolitics), the first volume of which appeared in 1924 (Neumann 1942, 115–124). In one of the issues of this journal, an author named Louis von Kohl explained that biopolitics and geopolitics were together “the basis for a natural science of the state” (1933, 306). This “biology of the state,” as envisioned by Kohl, examined the development of a people or a state from two different but complementary points of view: “When we observe a people or a state we can place greater emphasis either on temporal or spatial observations. Respectively, we will have to speak of either biopolitics or geopolitics. Biopolitics is thus concerned with historical development in time, geopolitics with actual distribution in space or with the actual interplay between people and space” (ibid., 308).
Kohl distinguishes between a vertical and a horizontal perspective on society and state. The first envisages the development of the people’s body and its “living space” in time. It concentrates on “the importance of racial elements” and observes “the swelling and ebbing of the people’s body, the social stratifications it consists of and their changes, its susceptibility to sicknesses, and so forth” (ibid., 308). This viewpoint corresponds to a horizontal perspective that tries to comprehend the struggles and conflicts of “different powers and fields of power in geographical space” (ibid., 309). Temporal development and spatial movement should be considered together. They serve Kohl as a guideline and yardstick for politics.
The link between racial delusion and genocide contained in the formula “Blut und Boden” (blood and soil) may have been a peculiarity of National Socialist biopolitics. The fundamental idea of a “biologization of politics” is nevertheless neither a German idiosyncrasy nor limited to the period of National Socialism. The state’s “gardening-breeding-surgical ambitions” (Baumann 1991, 32) can be traced back at least to the 18th century. In the period between World War I and World War II, these fantasies blossomed in ideologically and politically antagonistic camps. They emerged in the projects of the “new Soviet man” under Stalin’s dictatorship but also in the eugenic practices of liberal democracies. German racial hygienists were in close scientific contact with geneticists around the world and turned to American sterilization programs and practices of immigration restriction to promote their own political positions (Kevles 1995). Like the Nazi regime, Stalinist ideologues sought to use new scientific knowledge and technological options to “refine” and “ennoble” the Soviet people. Biopolitical visions not only crossed national boundaries; they were also supported by nonstate actors and social movements. The Rockefeller Foundation, which played a significant role in funding the rise of molecular biology in the United States in the 1930s, expected this science to produce new knowledge and instruments of social control and to be able to steer and to optimize human behavior (Kay 1993).
Even if racist biopolitics no longer had any serious scientific or political standing after the end of the Third Reich and the atrocities of World War II, it continued to have appeal. Representatives of right-wing movements still use the concept of biopolitics today, in order to complain about the ignorance of the “Zeitgeist” toward the “question of race”; they contend that the category of race has continuing relevance for the present. Like the National Socialist ideologues, they diagnose a fundamental social crisis resulting from the alleged struggle between different “races” and the imagined threat of “racial mixing” and “degeneration.” One example of this persistent theme is a book by Jacques Mahieu, formerly a member of the Waffen SS, who fled to Argentina after World War II and taught political science there in various universities. In order to establish a “foundation for politics,” the author believes political science’s “important role” today consists in defining the causes of the increasing “racial struggles” and “ethnic collisions” (2003, 13). Beyond representing a model to specify the problem, the biopolitical triad of People-Nation-Race evoked in the title of Mahieu’s book is also meant to offer solutions to the crisis it claims to identify. “The meaning of biopolitics” is, according to the author, “to calculate the totality of genetic processes insofar as they influence the life of human communities” (ibid., 12).

Biopolitology: Human Nature and Political Action

In the middle of the 1960s a new theoretical approach developed within political science which advanced a “naturalistic study of politics” (Blank and Hines 2001, 2). “Biopoliticians” (Somit and Peterson 1987, 108) use biological concepts and research methods in order to investigate the causes and forms of political behavior.2 Representatives of this approach draw on ethological, genetic, physiological, psychopharmacological, and sociobiological hypotheses, models, and findings. Despite research and publication activity that now spans four decades, it is only in the United States that one can find a rudimentary institutionalization of this theoretical perspective today. The Association for Politics and Life Sciences (APLS) acquired an official section of the American Political Science Association (APSA) in 1985 but lost it ten years later because of declining membership. The journal founded by this section, Politics and the Life Sciences, has been in existence since 1982 (Blank and Hines 2001, 6–8). Outside the United States, this branch of political science plays hardly any role, even if there are scholars in a few countries who consider themselves biopoliticians.3
Even among advocates for this approach, however, its meaning and scope are disputed. Whereas some biopoliticians demand a paradigm shift in political science or want to integrate all the social sciences into a new, unified sociobiological science (Wilson 1998), others see in this approach an important supplement to and perfection of already established theoretical models and research methods. Within this heterogeneous field of research, it is possible to identify four areas to which most of the projects can be assigned. The first area comprises reception of neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory. At its center stands the historical and anthropological question of the development of human beings and the origins of state and society. A second group of works takes up ethological and sociobiological concepts and findings in order to analyze political behavior. Works interested in physiological factors and their possible contribution to an understanding of political action fall into the third category. A fourth group focuses on practical political problems (“biopolicies”), which arise from interventions in human nature and changes to the environment (Somit and Peterson 1987, 108; Kamps and Watts 1998, 17–18; Blank and Hines 2001; Meyer-Emerick 2007).
Despite the diversity of the theoretical sources and thematic interests involved here, one can nonetheless speak of a common research perspective since most of these works agree on three fundamental aspects. First, the object of investigation is primarily political behavior, which—and this is the underlying assumption—is caused in a substantial way by objectively demonstrable biological factors. Within these explicative models, (inter)subjective motivations or reasons play no more than a minor role, as do cultural factors. Second, the objective of the approach is not the interpretation of symbolic structures or the provision of normative critique; it is much more oriented toward describing and explaining observable behavior in order to draw conclusions for a rational politics, that is, a politics consistent with biological exigencies. Third, methodologically speaking, the approach rests on the perspective of an external observer who objectively describes certain forms of behavior and institutional processes. By contrast, concepts that approach reality from the perspective of actors or participants are considered scientifically deficient (Saretzki 1990, 86–87).
Common to all representatives of “biopolitics” is thus a critique of the theoretical and methodological orientation of the social sciences, which, in their view, is insufficient. They argue that the social sciences are guided by the assumption that human beings are, in principle, free beings, a view that gives too much significance to processes of learning and socialization and thereby fails to see that human (political) behavior is in large part biologically conditioned. From this perspective, the “culturalism” of the social sciences remains “superficial” as it systematically ignores the “deeper” causes of human behavior. Conventional social-scientific research is thus “one-sided” and “reductionist” insofar as the biological origins of human behavior remain outside the horizon of the questions it poses. In order to produce a “more realistic” evaluation of human beings and how they live, biopoliticians demand a “biocultural” or “biosocial” approach. This is supposed to integrate social-scientific and biological viewpoints, in order to replace a one-sided either-or with a combinatory model (Wiegele 1979; Masters 2001; Alford and Hibbing 2008).
Biopoliticians do not as a rule assume a deterministic relationship but refer to biological “origins” or “factors” which are supposed to decisively shape the motives and spaces of political actors. They presume that in human evolutionary history a multitude of behavioral patterns have arisen and that although none of these completely determines human behavior, many mold it to a considerable degree in various areas of life. Works written under the rubric of “biopolitics” are interested above all in competition and cooperation, anxiety and aggression, relations of dominance, the construction of hierarchies, enmity toward foreigners, and nepotism. These phenomena ultimately go back—or at least this is the assumption—to evolutionary mechanisms and lead to the formation of affects that usually guide individuals in the direction of “biologically beneficial” behavior. According to this view, the formation and persistence of states depend less on democratic consensus or social authority than on psychologically and physically grounded relationships of dominance, which can in turn be traced back to inherited behavior patterns (cf. Wiegele 1979; Blank and Hines 2001).
In this view, the emergence of hierarchies in human society is not a social phenomenon but rather an inevitable result of evolutionary history. The reason given for this is that asymmetrically distributed opportunities for access and participation allegedly offer evolutionary advantages, since stable and predictable relationships are supposed to favor the transmission of one’s genes to the next generation. In order to establish solid grounds for this assumption, biopoliticians often present economic propositions and premises as matters of natural fact. Accordingly, human beings are by nature disposed to competition over scarce resources, and insofar as they are differently equipped biologically for competitive situations, power is distributed unequally. For this reason, social hierarchies are said to be necessary and unavoidable (Somit and Peterson 1997).
Furthermore, preferences for certain forms of government and authority are derived from human evolutionary history. It is regularly assumed that the genetic endowment of human beings makes authoritarian regimes likelier than democratic states. A democratic state is, according to this view, only possible under particular—and very rarely occurring—evolutionary conditions. A democracy can only arise and assert itself against the dominating behavior of individuals and groups if power resources are distributed widely enough so that no actor can achieve supremacy (Vanhanen 1984). Even ethnocentrism and ethnic conflict are traced back to determinants in human phylogeny, to conflict over scarce resources and the principle of kin selection. The latter idea assumes that in smaller groups the welfare of the group member is more highly valued than the welfare of nonmembers, due to a higher probability of being biologically related to one another (...

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Citation styles for Biopolitics
APA 6 Citation
Lemke, T., Casper, M., & Moore, L. J. (2011). Biopolitics ([edition unavailable]). NYU Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2011)
Chicago Citation
Lemke, Thomas, Monica Casper, and Lisa Jean Moore. (2011) 2011. Biopolitics. [Edition unavailable]. NYU Press.
Harvard Citation
Lemke, T., Casper, M. and Moore, L. J. (2011) Biopolitics. [edition unavailable]. NYU Press. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Lemke, Thomas, Monica Casper, and Lisa Jean Moore. Biopolitics. [edition unavailable]. NYU Press, 2011. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.