With or without you: Biopolitics and International Relations

A review of Global governanace and biopolitics - David Roberts, Zed Books, London, 2010. Paperback, 196 pages.

Marianna Cage

It would be hard to take any book on the subject of the health of the world's population and how that fits into IR discourses, that did not see neoliberal political and economic institutions as directly culpable - whether through negligence, indifference or deliberate design - for much of the worst cases of otherwise avoidable deprivation and death that abound. Fortunately David Roberts does see this clearly, and has written a book that aims to reformulate the idea and practice of "security" within global governance, to embody a norm that protects and cherishes human security. Good for him. Good for him to point out, that any talk of security in IR, should consider that the very precondition for it is to survive in the first place.

What complicates matters is the view that the best way to accomplish this is to chart a path between 'co-opted narrow and unrealizable broad imaginings' through a biopolitical perspective. What Rogers aims at is a strategic language of how regulatory institutions can be reformulated to better manage populations. He aims to show that whatever you believe the fate of global governance to be, within the existing framework it is very possible, and moreover expedient to reform practice so that the most vulnerable are able to secure the basic physiological needs that would enable them to at least stand a chance of living.

There is no universal human nature for Rogers, nor are there any objective methods by which such a thing may be appraised. The argument doesn't rely on a universal moral basis that enshrines the sanctity of human life, nor does it take the stance that the engineers of human suffering be made responsible, legally culpable for what, in their power, they do or do not do. The argument against the wholesale violation of the poorest, must remain within the strategic ambit of the norm creating, idea driving, forces of those same institutions. It is about 'viable alternatives', and why not, why be utopian, unrealistic, when all that needs to change is norms of behaviour, the language of management, and a technical redistribution of its resources?

Oh, but that is not all that is needed! Not by a long shot. And perhaps the last thing we need is that the asymmetry of power between North and South be displaced by a norms-entrepreneurialism that somehow does not cognise, that the norms so ripe for reform, so constituted, reflect the failure of western democratic standards in respect to domestic asymmetries of power. And the aim ought to be quite other than doing IR as if 'humans mattered'. Acting as if humans mattered, would require no less than mass dissension and exodus from institutional political science, the vacation of these academic cells and their exposure as what they really are, the soulless quarters of imperial ambition. For all the prosaic and perfunctory splattering of Foucault in the text, the critical (to be generous) reproduction of a discourse is still a reproduction of it.

Endemic in Western culture is the idea that security is gained from growth, Rogers doesn�t want to dispel this myth, but instil it everywhere. Yet the essence of this growth has been to forcibly remove people from the land, the only place where sustainability might realistically be located. Without it we are without autonomous, non-state, non-capitalistic means of subsistence, and without that we can only question the democratic deficit that underpins the asymmetry of power and social inequality from within. Politics in its democratic guise appeared because we had no other choice, all of our other options had become closed to us. But in fatal irony there is a risk that we export this estrangement as a model of salvation. It is one thing to feed the hungry, but to make entrepreneurs out of the poor in the Global South is like making fish out of fishermen, and a strategy that will ultimately shift the responsibility for their plight on their otherwise over-burdened shoulders.

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