In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • The Anthropologist as Witness: Humanitarianism between Ethnography and Critique
  • Nicolas Guilhot (bio)
Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present Didier Fassin Translated by Rachel Gomme Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. xvi + 324 pp.
Forces of Compassion: Humanitarianism between Ethics and Politics Erica Bornstein and Peter Redfield, eds. Santa Fe: SAR Press, 2011. xi + 320 pp.

In the concluding session of his 1976 lecture at the Collège de France, Michel Foucault introduced the notion of “biopower” to designate a new set of political technologies emerging in the eighteenth century and developing throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These technologies no longer expressed the traditional right of life and death that the sovereign exercised over his subjects, nor did they discipline discrete bodies according to the functional requirements of war, economic production, justice, or education: instead, they operated over the seamless and anonymous surface of large populations. Demographics, epidemiology, social hygiene, psychiatry, but also their institutional and political inscription into healthcare systems, insurance regimes, social medicine, or urban planning policies sought to secure conditions optimizing the life of populations in its most immediate biological manifestation. Biopower does not just preserve extant life: it actively intervenes throughout the social body to augment it and reshapes society as a secure, life-supporting environment. Foucault thus saw in biopower a new episode in the history of sovereignty, characterized by large-scale technologies of care and the dispensation of a modicum of social security, which deeply transformed the logic of government. The course was titled “Society must be defended.”1

Twenty-five years later, a similar linkage between sovereignty and the biopolitical imperative of securing life was articulated in an influential document. Its birthplace was not the amphitheaters of the Collège de France but the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. Its purpose was not to enlighten the public of the Latin Quarter in Paris but to clarify for the international community the mechanisms [End Page 81] and circumstances under which militarized humanitarian interventions could take place. Its title was not “Society must be defended” but, close enough, “The Responsibility to Protect.”2

In many ways, the report can be considered a landmark in the history of biopower. One of the striking things about this document is the extent to which it seems to vindicate Foucault’s suggestion that biopower was replacing or redefining sovereignty. It enshrined this transformation by making sovereignty conditional—something unthinkable in terms of classical political theory or legal philosophy—on the effective provision of security and stated that “state authorities are responsible for the functions of protecting the safety and life of citizens and promotion of their welfare.” Sovereignty no longer manifested itself exclusively by its capacity to provide security against external dangers such as foreign aggression but it included primarily protection against dangers immanent to social and political life itself (what Foucault called “endemic” dangers), namely, “threats to life, health, livelihood, personal safety and human dignity.”3

But biopower has come a long way since 1976, and it is now acknowledged as the ordering principle of global politics. To the extent that it seeks to regulate complex life environments, biopower is not limited by the artificial partitions of political space, since a local security deficit becomes “a risk to people everywhere.”4 In order to be effective, biopower has to be global. This does not mean that it bypasses state sovereignty (the report insists that the “responsibility to protect” departs from the confrontational notion of a “right to intervene”) but rather that sovereignty has to be reconstructed according to the biopolitical imperative. In the age of a globally shared responsibility to protect, sovereignty becomes the local instantiation of a security continuum that should ideally remain seamless.5 The report thus outlines a principle of subsidiarity, as it were, a “fallback responsibility” whereby the failure of a state to provide basic security to its population opens the possibility of an external intervention meant to ensure that the global security continuum is restored. This, according to the authors of the report, “bridges the divide between intervention and sovereignty.”6

Foucault is not the only author who seems to be vindicated by this emerging doctrine of global humanitarian...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 81-101
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.