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CR: The New Centennial Review 3.2 (2003) 161-186

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Globalization and the Biopolitics of Aging

Brett Neilson
University of Western Sydney

Now it is over life, throughout its unfolding, that power establishes its dominion.
—Foucault, The History of Sexuality
The context of our analysis thus has to be the very unfolding of life itself, the process of the constitution of the world, of history.
—Hardt and Negri, Empire

AGING AND GLOBALIZATION: WITHOUT DOUBT, THESE ARE AMONGTHE PRIMARY processes of transformation in the contemporary world. Both have a long history: in the first instance dating back to the murky origins of life itself, and in the second stretching as far into the past as the large-scale movements of trade and culture recorded by the earliest chroniclers. But in the contemporary capitalist world, these processes of change have acquired a new intensity and prominence, so much so that it is by now commonplace to hear both referred to in drastic terms. The global aging crisis, the age [End Page 161] wave, the longevity revolution, the baby bust: such are the monikers used to describe the unprecedented and rapid aging of the world's population in the past three decades. Equally suggestive of an epochal shift are those phrases that evoke the massive reorganization of space and time under capitalist globalization: the end of history, the borderless world, the rise of network society, the passage to Empire. Whatever the theoretical-political positions that underlie these catch phrases, they attest to a growing awareness, experience, and in some cases, resistance to these mutually implicated processes of transformation. One difficulty in studying the relation of aging to globalization is that the changes produced by one process are often difficult to distinguish from those brought about by the other. The politics of immigration, the surge in biotechnology, the deregulation of financial markets, the changing face of labor: all have important implications for aging, but cannot be understood in isolation from currently unfolding changes in the global organization of capitalism. While the present article examines briefly these specific instances of intersection between aging and globalization, its primary purpose is to provide theoretical and practical directions for future studies of the interaction between these complex processes of change.

Like globalization, aging is a multidimensional process, with multiple, interlaced effects upon the biological, sociocultural, political, and economic planes. Rooted in natural processes of ontogenetic development (which, at a certain level, humans share with animals and plants), aging takes place in sociocultural, economic, and political contexts that interact with each other in complex ways and, in turn, react back into biological processes to shape the condition of the body over time. As living beings, we all experience the effects of aging at the somatic level and, without doubt, we all eventually face the moment of death, however that might be recognized or defined. But the ways in which we age differ greatly—by gender, race, and class most obviously, but also by historical experiences that affect generational cohorts and the contingencies of individual biographies. As Brennan (1997) explains, the "thing that varies (how we age) is not the same as the thing that is varied (the fact of aging)" (257). While the fact of aging is presented to us as biologically self-evident, the sociocultural variations in how we age clearly have a material existence that involves something more than somatic biology. [End Page 162] It is at this level of material immanence (or what Brennan calls social physicality) that the aging process crisscrosses that of globalization. At least, this is the case in the contemporary world, where flows of people, goods, money, and technology move across national boundaries with increasing ease, challenging the sovereign authority of nation-states and profoundly altering the way in which political power is wielded over life.

That the current aging of the world's population has planetary implications is beyond dispute. As conservative commentator Peter G. Peterson (1999) points out, global life expectancy has grown more in the last 50 years than over the previous five thousand. At the same time, the...