Bioexpectations: Life Technologies as Humanitarian Goods
One of the key features marking “failed” states in contemporary political discourse is their incapacity to serve the needs of their respective populations, to govern as well as rule.1 Amid the ruins of bureaucratic infrastructure (which in specific historical terms may have existed only in imagination) lies a sense of moral as well as political duty: a sovereign power that does not foster life loses a basic claim to legitimacy. We expect that people — even small children — will live. Furthermore, as a legacy of the biopolitical welfare provisions, we now attribute responsibility for their well-being to their respective nation-states or, failing that, to international agencies. Ordinary existence has become not only a matter of expert concern but also a thoroughly normative one, as taken for granted as the political form of nation-state or the condition of citizenship itself.
The following essay examines this field of expectations left behind by the ascendancy of life amid politics, our common biopolitical imaginary, if you will, in the grand rhetorical tradition of an “international community.” My topic is not the state per se, particularly its gleaming instantiation in parts of the world where, say, schoolchildren routinely receive health education or straight white teeth define a norm. Rather, I explore the shadow of such service capacity amid its evident absence, in settings where even basic health infrastructure constitutes a rare exception. Most specifically, I am interested in the landscape of humanitarian imagination, particularly that of providers and the technologies they deploy. Although these material artifacts may not claim the future in the forceful manner of nanotechnology or genetic research, they nonetheless do indicate another shifting horizon, one perhaps just as significant for the future of social life as we know it. In their very design, these objects reflect doubts about state capacity to safeguard populations. Rather, they are distinctly humanitarian goods, presenting themselves as an ethical response to failure on the part of states — and sometimes of markets and forms of civil society as well. As such they participate in another market of sorts, one that focuses expressly on populations in need and thus values its commodities through an ethical as well as an economic calculus.
Foucault’s account of biopower famously focuses on the emergence of the modern European state. Contemporary experience, however, includes concerns about life and health that exceed this political form, involving international agencies, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and private corporations. What might biopolitics look like “without the state,” so to speak? Or, more accurately, what might it look like within a terrain where the state appears through chronic inadequacy, not the exercise of certain force. The following pages seek to outline one answer, following a line of ethical engagement as it now extends along a frontier of capitalism. Amid humanitarian concern for human life and the alleviation of suffering, a variety of initiatives both attest to the continuing power of assumptions relating life and politics and indicate an altered sense of a state role within them. Although life remains as much or more a moral good than ever, the apparatus seeking to ensure it now stretches beyond state bureaucracies, and even partly beyond NGOs to a motley of public-private partnerships and ethically oriented corporations. Through the alchemy of innovative design and empirical monitoring, they focus on meeting the most urgent needs of poor people in extreme circumstances.
It might be tempting to gloss this attempt at reconfigured governance simply as neoliberalism. However, such an analytic move risks overlooking specificities involved and the manner in which actors foreground moral and medical rather than market values. Their logic might indeed often emphasize self- governing subjects, accept profit motives, and minimize the role of state institutions. Nonetheless, their ethical sensibility extends beyond any faith in market reason. Indeed, it expressly qualifies any calculation of market efficiency with an initial rejection of human cost. People should not suffer, at least at the most minimal level of need. In this regard, the perspective takes its cue from the emergency end of the aid spectrum — humanitarianism rather than development. If energetically presented, these are hardly utopian visions. To the contrary, they remain resolutely realist, seeking minor improvements in a landscape deeply riven by want, violence, and disaster, what Fiona Terry (2002: 216) aptly terms a “second best world.” Their technocratic horizon remains far more delimited than either the statist or nongovernmental complexes of earlier decades (Ferguson 1990; Fisher 1997). At the same time, their heavy emphasis on expert monitoring and evaluation differs from early movements for appropriate technologies (Willoughby 1990).
Examining this terrain reopens the category of “neoliberal,” permitting more specific interrogation about the shifting assembly of techniques and approaches lumped under that name, as well as their potential reappropriation in use (Collier 2011; Ferguson 2009). Here I simply offer a preliminary outline, presenting a modest collection of examples from this humanitarian realm of concern and venture in government. The objects in question all seek to foster basic life functions, offering health, nutrition, clean water, and sanitation. The entities behind them all share a common value of life, which constitutes their primary preoccupation.
In this they depart from the larger corporate social responsibility movement, where ethics is more often an afterthought than a core business, and instead focus directly on the “bottom of the pyramid” (Cross and Street 2009; Dolan and Rajak 2011; Schwittay 2011). Moreover, all my examples operate on a relatively small scale, at the margins of both nonprofit and corporate life (Welker, Partridge, and Hardin 2011). It would thus be a mistake to overemphasize their effects or suggest that they offer any general solution when states and agencies fail. Indeed, I insist on their heterogeneity by presenting them as a loose collection, in the style of an early modern cabinet of curiosities. First, however, I sketch the normative moral vision that unites and animates them, their sense of how things “should be.”
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I thank Carlo Caduff and Tobias Rees for organizing the Biopower Today conference held at the University of Zurich in June 2011 and the other participants for their thoughtful and timely engagement. I am likewise most grateful to Andrew Lakoff and two reviewers for rapid and thoroughly helpful suggestions.
- See “The Failed States Index” produced by the Fund for Peace (2011). Although this particular index stresses security indicators, its map mirrors those of humanitarian agencies to a striking degree.