Neoliberal Public Health and the Rhetoric of War

If we look beneath…the State and State apparatuses, beneath the laws and so on, will we hear and discover a sort of primitive and permanent war? (Foucault 2000, : 46-47)

At dawn, on 11 November 2008, Julien Coupat was seized by French police and ‘preventively arrested’. French Interior Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie regarded Coupat and his associates as ‘pre-terrorists’ part of an ‘anarcho-autonomist cell’ (Anonymous 2008; Nardi 2009). Prior to the raid and arrests of November 2008 Coupat and his eight friends were not ‘pre-terrorists’ but nine individuals seeking to establish an alternate form of life to the consumer-driven existence found in the affluent suburbs of Paris from which they came. Moving to the village of Tarnac the nine grew their own food and “reorganized the local grocery store as a cooperative, and taken up a number of civic activities from the running of a film club to the delivery of food to the elderly” {Toscano, 2009 #191}. According to the villagers they were charming ‘self-sufficient students’ (Anonymous 2008). However, when a nearby section of railway was sabotaged through a small explosion the farmhouse transformed into a cell, the individuals into ‘pre-terrorists’ and the friends became known as the Tarnac 9 an anti-capitalist anarchist group with global reach.

Community garden in the Bronx. Anarchist flag amidst the nations.
Community garden in the Bronx. Anarchist flag amidst the nations. Photo: C. Mayes

The seizure of Coupat as a ‘pre-terrorist’ serves as an example of the political rationality influencing governmental strategies seeking to forecast and control not only threatening events, but pre-empt the very possibility of the events occurrence. The governmental drive to pre-empt, mobilizes the biopolitical seizure of life by taking control of individual bodies and regulating the life of the population. The imperative to target subjects that threaten the security of society produces a need to identify subjects prior to the actualisation of the subject as a threat. For Coupat, his irregular form of life attracted the gaze of the Central Directorate of Interior Intelligence (DCRI), provoking preventive intervention in order to secure the population from a possible terrorist threat. Thus the urgency to prevent a terrorist event provided the conditions in which the production and seizure of ‘pre-terrorist’ subjects is possible.

The identification of pre-terrorists in order to lead a preemptive battle in the war on terror is mirrored by features in the public health’s war on obesity that seeks to identify and target pre-obese bodies in a war on obesity.  Although some may object to the suggestion of parallels between the ‘war on terror’ and the ‘war on obesity’, particularly the comparison between counter-terrorism and public health, however, it is important to note that these comparisons are not my novel creation or the cynical and hyperbolic imaginings of social theorists (Biltekoff 2007). Politicians, public health advocates, health policy makers and the media have drawn metaphorical and literal parallels between the threat to global and national security posed by terrorism and that posed by obesity.  Perhaps the most widely publicised comparison was made by the former Surgeon General Richard Carmona, who described obesity in the US as ‘the terror within’ and that ‘[u]nless we do something about it, the magnitude of the dilemma will dwarf 9-11 or any other terrorist attempt’ (Carmona 2003). Public health advocates and the media in Australia have also drawn links between the threat of obesity and the threat of terrorism (Bartlett 2008; Gard 2007). These comparisons could be explained as merely misguided attempts to draw on the rhetorical force of the post-9/11 terrorism discourse in order to heighten the urgency for action on obesity. However, I contend that the appeal to war is not merely rhetorical, but indicative of the ambiguous relationship between neoliberal politics, public health and war in the West.

created by Brandon Knowlden, an art director from Struck Creative. http://brandonknowlden.com/#/obesity-is-suicide/
“Obesity is Suicide” by Brandon Knowlden from Struck Creative. http://brandonknowlden.com

The militarisation of public health discourse and policy serves as an example of Foucault’s inversion of Clausewitz’s principle that “Politics is the continuation of war by other means” (Foucault 2004, p.48). The appeal to war enables the neoliberal state to justify intervention in the life of the population and individuals as matter of security. Rather than considering the ‘war on obesity’ as merely mirroring the rhetoric of the ‘war on terror’, I contend that they share a political rationality that aims to secure the life of the population by pre-empting future threats through acting on subjects prior to their manifestation as an actual threat.

The suggestion that the ‘war on obesity’ and public health campaigns are manifestations of neoliberal political rationality could be seen to jar with critiques that such initiatives are examples of the Nanny or Welfare State. However, while the neoliberal state may withdraw from nationalized financial system, it does not abandon its monopoly on war and violence (Foucault 2004, p.48; Harvey 2009, p.82).

Of course the war waged against terrorism is of a different order to that waged against obesity. While the former requires an explicit appeal to the state’s monopoly on violence, the latter is a ‘peaceful’ continuation of war through a politics that is “perpetually to use a sort of silent war to reinscribe that relationship of force, and to reinscribe it in institutions, economic inequalities, language and even the bodies of individuals” (Foucault 2004, p.16). The continuation of war through politics “sanctions and reproduces the disequilibrium of forces manifested in war” and instils this disequilibrium in the political institutions and the bodies of individuals.

In launching a ‘war on obesity’, the intervention in the life of the individual and population is framed by the Hobbesian mythos that the state provides security and protection. Considering obesity as threat to be secured and in employing the terms of war, the neoliberal state can justify intervention into the lives of the people. Against the background of the neoliberal monopoly of war the future is secured through the production and governance of subjects in the present. It is here that the wars on obesity, drugs, gangs, poverty and terrors begin to resemble each other.

References

Anonymous. 2008. “Cabbage-patch revolutionaries? The French ‘grocer terrorists’.” The Independent, December 18, 2008.

Bartlett, Lawrence. 2008. “Obesity more dangerous than terrorism: experts.” The Age, February 25, 2008.

Biltekoff, Charlotte 2007. “The Terror Within: Obesity in Post 9/11 U.S. Life.” American Studies no. 48 (3).

Carmona, Richard H. 2003. Remarks to the American Medical Association’s National Advocacy Conference. edited by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Foucault, Michel. 2000. “Society Must Be Defended.” In Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, edited by Paul Rabinow. London: Penguin.

———. 2004. Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France 1975-76

. Translated by David Macey. Edited by Arnold I. Davidson. London: Penguin.

Gard, Michael. 2007. “Is the War on Obesity Also a War on Children?” Childrenz Issues: Journal of the Children’s Issues Centre no. 11 (2):20-24.

Harvey, David. 2009. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nardi, Sarah. 2009. The Coming Insurrection. Adbusters, 14/07/2009.

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One Comment

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  1. Philip K. Dick might have already imagined – and written about – pre-crime in The Minority Report, but your post is the making of a great plot for a sequel. Why use pre-crime technology to limit ourselves to terror, when it could also be used for detecting emerging obesity! I’ll get writing…

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