Biopower and homophobia in Russia

“Men accept servility in order to acquire wealth; as if they could acquire anything of their own when they cannot even assert that they belong to themselves.” – Etienne De La Boétie

Gays not allowed

Homophobia_on_the_rise_in_Russia_01Gay people no longer seem welcomed even in the West. On the one hand, far right politicians like Geert Wilders pride themselves over Western tolerance for gays in contrast to Muslim intolerance, but, on the other hand, contemporary tolerance seems highly conditioned. The legal recognition of gay marriage or adoption still seems to stir up massive protests in both France and the United States. God made humanity in His own image, but he seems to love that image more in some than in others. The most recent site of LGBT discrimination is Russia. After the Russian revolution Lenin made the USSR exactly one of the first countries to decriminalize homosexuality, but now Russia is one of the most homophobic countries of the West. A recent survey by The Atlantic indicates that only 16% of Russians think homosexuality should be legally recognized. Homophobic violence is, as a result, extremely brutal in Russia and mostly tolerated by the police. The case of Vladislav Tornovoy, a 23-year old man, is striking. The police report states that “Four young people were drinking … And one of them already knew, he’d heard from others, that he [the victim] was of an untraditional sexual orientation. He asked him the question and the victim said yes … After that, one of them hit him, he fell to the floor, and then they brutally beat him, set fire to the clothes he was wearing, slashed his anal area and then stuck three bottles in there, again beat him and then threw a 20-kg (44-pound) stone onto his head.” The toleration of such violence has aggravated since the law against propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations was passed unanimously in the Russian parliament. Although the law does not criminalize homosexuality as such, it makes all public exposure or support of homosexuality and gay rights illegal. We should ask ourselves the origin of such homophobia. Is it just an example of Stone Age morality doomed to disappear through further enlightenment of the people? Or is it, on the contrary, an integral part of this enlightenment project? “No universal history leads from savagery to humanitarianism, but there is one leading from the slingshot to the megaton bomb,” thus spoke Theodor Adorno.

Biopower for the protection of mother Russia

In the last chapter of his first volume of L’histoire de la sexualité Michel Foucault frames modernity as a passage from sovereign power to biopower. Sovereign power is characteristic of the ancien régime and is based on exclusion. The sovereign is the one who has the right to kill or let live. His power is the power to take things away. This can be your money in the case of taxes or your life in the cases of war or the death penalty. Foucault makes the remarkable observation that this is subordinated to another kind of power throughout the 18th and 19th century. Biopower is not interested in taking life away, but instead wants to invest in life in order for it to become highly productive for the state. Biopower is the capacity to make live and let die. The state wants to release and use the capacities of the bodies of its subjects. This process can be linked with the emergence of industrial capitalism. In the age of factories and mass production, workers should be molded in such a way as to be productive enough to keep the system running. The more productive the bodies are, the more surplus value can be extracted from them.

Biopower has two components, namely discipline and biopolitics. Discipline is a way to train individual bodies to fit into the production process. Individuals are transformed in docile bodies that can be molded in the machines of the factory. For instance, the worker is trained to keep his posture in a certain way as to produce as much commodities as possible without straining his back or neck, he learns to react automatically to the blows of whistle and his employer keeps a dossier of him where his productivity is measured and compared to others. Biopolitics, on the other hand, does not concern itself with the individual, but with the population. Where some things seem to be accidental on the level of the individual, regularities can appear in statistics and demographical data analyzing the population as a whole. Biopolitics concerns itself with the birth rate, death rate, etc. of people. It makes the population productive by instigating regulatory measures to counteract unproductive life-styles. For example, when there are not enough youth to pay for the pensions of older generations, the government can maximize child benefits or introduce a tax reduction for children. This motivates people to have more children and is hence beneficent for the statistics of the workforce.

The Russian law against propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations is a biopolitical measure. The reasons given for the law by the government are that homosexuality has negative effects on divorce rates, birth rates, the strength of the army and family values. Homosexuality corrupts the social fabric of the population. They cannot further the population by making babies, they make productive marriages fall apart. It is thus clear that Russian legal homophobia is a modern phenomenon and not a remnant of ancient times. Putin does not want to discriminate against homosexuals like a sovereign who excludes people from his community. He is thinking of the children. His reasons are not just false propaganda, but he actually means what he says. The population is in danger and the only way to protect it is by discriminating against homosexuals.

The homo (sacer)

If we can take the Russian government at its word and agree that it really believes to justify its homophobia on biopolitical grounds, one important question is left unanswered. Why does Russian policy tolerate so much homophobic violence of its citizens? Killing homosexuals certainly does not aid the statistics. What connection exists between the politics of life (biopolitics) and the politics of death (thanatopolitics)?

Foucault himself has noted that the shift from the sovereign power to take life or let live to biopower to make live or let die, has not diminished the brutality of violence at all. On the contrary, “wars were never as bloody as they have been since the nineteenth century, and all things being equal, never before did regimes visit such holocausts on their own populations. But this formidable power of death -and this is perhaps what accounts for part of its force and the cynicism with which it has so greatly expanded its limits -now presents itself as the counterpart of a power that exerts a positive influence on life, that endeavors to administer, optimize, and multiply it, subjecting it to precise controls and comprehensive regulations. Wars are no longer waged in the name of a sovereign who must be defended; they are waged on behalf of the existence of everyone; entire populations are mobilized for the purpose of wholesale slaughter in the name of life necessity: massacres have become vital.”

Biopower is a regime that makes life and lets die. In Il faut défendre la société Foucault elaborates that the state must install breaks within the fabric of life to distinguish between the lives to be invested in and what must die. Every state must delineate its jurisdiction in order to know what life is to be promoted and what life is to be neglected or abandoned. That is why a state provides social security for its own citizens, but lets children in the Third World die of starvation. The state makes life and lets die. In the age of sovereign power these breaks only concerned the jurisdiction of the sovereign. They simply meant the limits of where a king could tax and where he could not. Nowadays, these breaks are invested in life itself. When power becomes directly concerned with life, the caesurae it creates are as much part of life itself. As a result, breaks emerge within the jurisdiction of the state, where they used to mark the borders of it.

Whenever power concerns itself directly with naked life, caesurae are created that abandon ‘unworthy life’ to a state of nature. The life of Russian homosexuals is left to itself as if abandoned by the state. As a result, they are like deer in the hunting season. In this way they resemble a mysterious figure from ancient Roman law called the homo sacer. The sacred man is someone who can legally be killed by anyone, but cannot be sacrificed to the gods. He is exiled from both humane and divine law. He is only part of the law as that which is excluded from it. The fact that gay people are prohibited to express their homosexuality in public means that in so far as they are homosexual they are exiled by the Russian state. This exile amounts to the state of nature as Thomas Hobbes described it. Life in the state of nature is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’, since the violence of all against gays is a permanent possibility to be reckoned with. Whenever someone admits to being gay, he or she can be beaten, raped and killed.

Let thy kingdom come home is left for the exiled? Theodor Adorno rightly wrote: “ethics today means not being at home in one’s house”. In the same aphorism he notes that there is no good life possible in a wrong world. When there is something wrong with the world itself, then there is even no way to conceive of an appropriate way of life. In the last aphorism of the book however, Adorno does develop an ethics. The only possible relation to the world we can acquire is through a messianic light. “The only philosophy which would still be accountable in the face of despair, would be the attempt to consider all things, as they would be portrayed from the standpoint of redemption. Cognition has no other light than that which shines from redemption out upon the world.” This ethics envisages the coming of the kingdom of God on Earth. We must take the standpoint of this coming. This means that we should abandon the laws of the world as they have abandoned us in order to live like the Messiah.  The kingdom of God is thus not something that should come from the heavens above, but something that emanates from life itself. If the law abandons you, be your own law! If justice is not done to you, be you own justice! If you do not belong, belong to you!

Further reading

M. Foucault, The history of sexuality: vol. 1.

M. Foucault, Society must be defended.

G. Agamben, Homo sacer.

T. W. Adorno, Minima moralia


One thought on “Biopower and homophobia in Russia

  1. Pingback: 19 moments historiques qui retracent le combat douloureux des homosexuels pour l’égalité des droits | Daily Geek Show

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s