In March 1976, philosopher Michel Foucault described the advent of a new logic of government, specific to Western liberal societies. He called it biopolitics. States were becoming obsessed with the health and wellbeing of their populations.
And sure enough, 40 years later, Western states rarely have been more busy promoting healthy food, banning tobacco, regulating alcohol, organising breast cancer checks, or churning out information on the risk probabilities of this or that disease.
Foucault never claimed this was a bad trend – it saves lives after all. But he did warn that paying so much attention to the health and wealth of one population necessitates the exclusion of those who are not entitled to – and are perceived to endanger – this health maximisation programme.
Biopolitics is therefore the politics of live and let die. The more a state focuses on its own population, the more it creates the conditions of possibility for others to die, “exposing people to death, increasing the risk of death for some people.
Rarely has this paradox been more apparent than in the crisis that has seen hundreds of thousands of people seeking asylum in Europe over the past few years. It is striking to watch European societies investing so much in health at home and, at the same time, erecting ever more impermeable legal and material barriers to keep refugees at bay, actively contributing to human deaths. (Live and let die: did Michel Foucault predict Europe’s refugee crisis?, from The Conversation, February 26, 2016)
While there is considerable evidence supporting Foucault's "biopolitics" notion, it can be argued, these forty years later, that "bio", or an emphasis on biology and preventing illness, has been replaced by "narcissus-politics" in which, human ambition for whatever feeds personal instant gratification is ruling the barnyard.
Obsession with personal hygiene, health, perfect grammar and spelling (spoiler alert: 65% of women in the United States say that grammar errors by their male partners would be a deal-breaker on further dating), having the most up-to-date tech device, driving the most coveted car, wearing the most chic attire, coveting the largest corner office with the largest stock option package, and turning a deaf ear to the plight of millions of starving, displaced and least likely to survive indigents (refugees, migrants, the incarcerated, the unemployed, the underemployed, the millions who have simply stopped looking for or expecting employment, while seeking access to both prescription and illicit drugs, and bullying all those who block, confront or even disagree with a chosen point of view and a career path or an ideological conviction.....
these are some of the symptoms of the narcissism that has grown to epidemic proportions in our political system.
Any ordinary citizen, with only a nominal stethoscope that includes a television and a computer screen, living in the most remote location, can smell the decay that is wreaking havoc in obviously open geopolitical abscesses that simply will not stop hemorrhaging their puss. And while there are nominal attempts to determine both the causes and the remedies for these open political sores, if the patient (the planet) were admitted to the emergency room of a well-staffed and well-equipped hospital for treatment, after a few x-rays, MRI's and CTScans, the patient would be sent home with a note for a pain-killer prescription and a diagnosis note on the discharge document that read: Undetermined diagnosis.
We have more statistical data from more sources, with more software programs to collate, analyse and predict the probability of these symptoms repeating, under similar conditions, we have no ability, no willingness and no courage to face our own conundrums square on, knowing that all the technology and the meta-data will not be much use with the essential conscription of our human will to tell the truth to ourselves and to our leaders.
We are obsessed with the pursuit of happiness, itself a hollow goal, so ephemeral and so illusive that, although billions have been spent in its diagnosis and its prescriptions and grad schools have granted graduate degrees for disciples to spread the word, we are not only no closer to realizing its potential. In fact, in our pursuit of its gift, we have lost ground in our development of the strengths of character/muscle/courage/ through our having avoided paying attention to their importance.
We are, as a species, much more interested in finding blame for our troubles than in finding responsibility for our individual and our collective circumstances.
In our workplaces, we reduce our workers to machines with production quotas;
In our schools, we reduce our students to cognitive scores, in their competitive march to post-secondary education.
In our families, we reduce our relationships to "transactional interactions" based on good vibes for good performances, and bad vibes for lesser behaviour.
In our churches, we reduce the people in the pews to children, whose need for attention and black/white answers trumps a healthy search in the ambiguities of each faith pilgrimage, and then demand their philanthropy as signs of their spiritual health.
In our towns and cities, we "certify" our public officials, after they meet specific criteria, and then watch as they under-or-over-perform their duties depending on their need for their own agenda.
In our newsrooms, we reward the reporter who breaks the story first, providing the instant gratification of the best ratings tonight, regardless of whom that story broke the lives of unnamed sources, so long as we 'won' the ratings war.
In the military, we subject recruits to a form of brainwashing that legitimizes absolute power and authority and obedience to that symbol of power and authority, the commander, under the argument that every recruit has to follow orders, so that we each have each other's back in danger.
In our corporations, we reward the biggest deal for the largest account, and the agent who achieved that account, rendering others, implicitly, as "less than" and then wonder why our bars and our pubs are filled after work each day, and our emergency rooms are filled with those whose depression and/or anger has rendered them in need of help, whether from formal accidents or from self-inflicted abuse.
And, we continue to hold as sacred, this competitive model in all activities, as the "generator" of all of human achievements, while thousands of athletes, for example, join a class-action suit upon review of the overwhelming evidence that their sport literally killed them, (while making their masters/owners millionaires). And we continue to laud the "business model" of their sport, and many if not most other for-profit organizations, that treat their human component as mere "raw materials" in a production line of entertainment, or products or services, and our air and water as simply other raw materials in our machines-for-profit.
And then, to add insult to injury, we take our profits off shore where there are no or barely any income taxes to be paid, thereby fleecing our workers and their communities, to serve our greed and narcissism.
And our greed and our narcissism, in themselves, are neither criminal nor are they evidence of culpability, in our headlong rush to "success".
We simply do not give a damn about "the other" no matter who the other happens to be. And we care even less for those "others" who do not speak our language, who do not worship our 'god', who do not have the same colour of skin as we do, and who 'invade' our space in their attempt to escape their own trauma.
And then, if we happen to shed a single tear for the less-fortunate, and, like Canada, bring in some 25,000 refugees from the Syrian and the Afghan conflict zones, we pat ourselves on the back as if we were heroes, when we have merely assuage our guilty conscience, and fed our national pride because we are 'better than" those countries, like the United States who refuse to accept such refugees.
It is not that we should not lend a helping hand, in modest ways; Rather it is that we should be crying out in protest of the way we think the world and the economy should operate. We should be demanding the reigning in of corporate greed, and of political narcissism, especially those examples that seek to satisfy their own personal gratification, without regard for the larger pictures of human plight that surround us on all side.
If we are unable and unwilling to see the other as "one of us" then how will we ever come to the place where a shared eco-system requires our universal, total and long-term protection?
How will we ever come to the place where we no longer need or even want nuclear weapons?
How will we ever come to the place where biological and chemical weapons no longer belong on the planet anywhere, anytime?
How will we ever come to the place where we replace our narcissism and greed, in a world whose scarcity and plenty are continually in conflict, with authentic compassion, collaboration, and commitment to the survival of all?
The short answer is, "We wont!"