The Microphysics of Power Redux

William Walters

Prologue: The Jaws of Migration

We could speak of jaws of migration control in a metaphorical way. In 2014 alone more than 3000 migrants drowned while attempting to cross the Mediterranean:1 the reference to jaws would signify that for many migrants the borderzones that connect and separate the zones of prosperity and poverty that we have come to designate, however unsatisfactorily, as global north and global south, have today become places of unspeakable cruelty and death. But we could also be very literal about the jaw.2 Most scholars of migration would puzzle at the claim that the regulation of the migration of people bore any connection to the jaw. Likewise more than a few scholars of international relations would frown at the suggestion that there is anything faintly mandibular about the making and the policing of borders. But there is.

[T]he mandibular angle technique is a safe technique. The risks deriving from its correct application are small and the margin for error sufficiently wide as to make the risks of incorrect application similarly small.3

W. Walters (*)

Carleton University, Ottawa, ON, Canada e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

© The Author(s) 2017 57

P. Bonditti et al. (eds.), Foucault and the Modern International,

The Sciences Po Series in International Relations and Political Economy, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-56153-4_4

So wrote the Independent Advisory Panel on Non-Compliance Management (IAPNCM), the expert committee of doctors, prison experts and magistrates recently convened by the UK Home Office to look into the management of “non-compliant” people undergoing deportation. While concerns about the abuse suffered by deportees during “removal” from the UK had circulated for some time,4 matters were brought to a head by a fatal incident involving a man being expelled from the UK to Angola. In 2010, Jimmy Mubenga died while being restrained by three Detainee Custody Officers (or “escorts,” to use the rather benign term of deportation experts) on a British Airways plane waiting to depart Heathrow airport. The escorts were employed by G4S, the multinational security company which then held the contract for policing removals in the UK Among its findings a Coroner’s report lamented the culture of “pervasive racism” among the escorts, a system of performance points which appeared to penalize escorts for failed deportations, and the inadequate “scenario-specific” training given to escorts for managing recalcitrant deportees in the cramped space of an aeroplane journey.5 So when the Independent Advisory Panel met, it was the need for a “bespoke approach to safe escorting” that it sought to address, a “restraints package” that “avoids force whenever possible” and “minimises harm and maximises safety.”6 By no means an easy circle to square.

The mandibular angle is not a method of control that just happens to produce pain in the course of restraining people. “Pain inducing techniques are not painful as a side-effect: they use pain in order to secure compliance.” The Panel went on to note that exercising pain in this way did raise “clear ethical issues.” Yet, this exercise could be justified if it was the “safest and most appropriate way of dealing with an incident, or of gaining control of a violent subject;” it was reasonable if it was less risky than other means of de-escalating the situation. Typically it might be used when the subject was resisting being placed on or removed from an aircraft, operating as “the least risky way of releasing a detainee’s grip on a person or on a railing or similar object.”7 Used according to proper guidelines as to the occasion and the duration (“five seconds”) pain- inducing techniques could be rationalized as “reducing the risk of injury to detainees and to staff.”8

The mandibular angle technique appears in the report as part of a whole package of “core techniques” which the Panel was recommending for the management of deportees. In the report the body is broken down into an ensemble of head, limbs, torso, digits, wrists etc, each of which offers potential pressure points for the calculated application of particular holds, twists and flexes. These moves appear in the report framed as a “risk assessment matrix”9 wherein the experts review each one in terms of the likelihood it might result in incidents of “airway, breathing and circulation,” “fracture or dislocation,” “soft tissue injury” and other complications. The mandibular angle came out as “low,” “nil” and “low” respectively, though it was noted that if “misapplied, a minor risk of causing cardiac complications due to compression of carotid sinus” was a possibility.10

While such a reference to risk places this calibration of “control and restraint” squarely within very contemporary rationalities of governance, I think it is also possible and useful to place this expert discourse about power and the body of the deported within a somewhat different lineage, that of political anatomy. It was Michel Foucault who brought this term into contemporary use by borrowing and adapting it from the economist and physician Sir William Petty. To speak of political anatomy as Foucault repurposes it is not to commit the anthropomorphic error of treating the state as a unified body. Instead, “[o]ne would be concerned with the ‘body politic,’ as a set of material elements and techniques that serve as weapons, relays, communication routes and supports for the power and knowledge relations that invest human bodies and subjugate them by turning them into objects of knowledge.”11

Foucault proceeds to explain that the project of a political anatomy would emphasize that the human body does not exist in a purely external relationship to the political field. Nor is the body to be regarded as a kind of ever present biological substrate, a foundation for human subjects who engage in politics, alongside countless other activities. Rather, “the body is... directly involved in the political field; power relations have an immediate hold upon it; they invest it, mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs.”12

If Petty made his mark on political anatomy by mapping Ireland for the purpose of its colonization under Cromwell it is instead the migrant body that is being mapped here. One could open up new aspects of deportation by examining it from the angle of political anatomy. While political science might approach deportation as a state policy—asking perhaps what social and institutional factors explain the effectiveness of different national programs—a political anatomy would examine the heterogeneous powers involved in deportation on a more molecular scale, revealing that a whole set of mechanisms is at play at the level of the body of the deportee, its relationship with the bodies and actions of the escorts and other authorities, and within specific milieux such as the detention center, the airport and the aircraft. These mechanisms are typically overlooked by political science and international relations (IR), but they merit our attention: without a means to control the deportee in transit, the entire project of deporting people would lose much of its efficacy and viability.

The political anatomy I have in mind would no doubt show that it is not just migrants who cross borders but these many little practices of control: they too are mobile. For the kinds of pacification and neutralization techniques examined by the Panel are often invented in one setting or country and then migrate across a national and transnational web of expertise that connects prisons, remand schools and migration control facilities, despite the fact of their different populations, functions and jurisdictions.13 It would also show how each little practice has its own complicated history— how, for instance, at some times and in some places immigration enforcement has used powerful drugs like Haldol and Stesolid to sedate deportees while in other jurisdictions this practice has been deemed illegal.14 Or how the mandibular technique replaced the nose control technique since the latter was causing too many nosebleeds in young people.15 This political anatomy would doubtless show that a variety of public as well as private actors are implicated in this ecology of control. So, when the Panel wanted to test the effectiveness and safety of different methods it was to the Virgin Atlantic airline simulator training environment at Gatwick airport that their field trip took them.16 Finally, one would also need to examine the relationship between political anatomy and political economy. As the Panel noted with an air of satisfaction, the majority of deportations do not require the use of force.17 The majority are “voluntary” in the very minimal sense that their targets leave without being physically and bodily removed. The schemes of “assisted voluntary return” managed by agencies like the International Organization for Migration represent an important factor in such voluntary departures. These offer cash incentives and bureaucratic assistance with the migrant’s relocation. Here the deportee is located within a matrix of economic interest rather than pain and restraint. That said, the boundary between the political economy of voluntary return and the political anatomy of enforced removal is distinctly blurry. This is not least because of the nature of the choice on offer: voluntary return is “offered as a less painful alternative to continued destitution followed by (inevitable) compulsory return.”18

As is well known, Foucault raises the theme of a political anatomy—or as he sometimes puts it, anatamo-politics—in the context of the rethinking of power which he advances in Discipline and Punish. It is in this work that he gives the theme of a “microphysics of power” its fullest and most systematic expression. However, with the phenomenal growth of interest in themes of governmentality and biopolitics (the latter a notion he first introduced as the counterpart to anatamo-politics), the theme of the microphysics of power has somewhat receded from view—both in Foucault studies and commentaries, and in the considerably wider domain of post- foucauldian political sociology. It seems that studies of governmentality “are everywhere the most living part of [Foucault’s] oeuvre.”19

In the extensive literature that has developed connecting themes of biopower and governmentality to world politics one can discern at least two broad branches. One is exemplified by works like Hardt and Negri’s Empire which draw Foucault into the orbit of grand theory.20 Here, the detailed analysis of the micro-powers is even less prominent than in Foucault’s reflections on governmentality. In a second branch, the microphysics of exercising rule over great distances and territories is placed front and center—a move nicely illustrated by Andrew Barry’s masterful account of the art of empire in terms of the development of electrical standards and the challenge of engineering transoceanic telegraph cable.21 The development of the study of political anatomy might be situated in this second branch.

This chapter can be read as something of a thought experiment. I argue for revisiting the microphysics of power and demonstrate this can be useful for the analysis of particular issues and contexts within global politics.22 In particular, and as intimated in this opening discussion which situates medical and police know-how about the jaw within the power/knowledge of state enforced migration, I am interested in what microphysics brings to our understanding of the kinds of power that circulate in the domain of deportation. Following a brief contextualization of Foucault’s thinking on microphysics, I make two arguments about the value of microphysics redux. First, a concern with microphysics can serve as a counter-weight to the tendency in many studies of governmentality to focus on indirect forms of power while downplaying or overlooking the presence of relations of force, violence and struggle.23 In particular, this move can foreground the materiality and place of everyday violence in the fabrication of global order. Second, I argue that a microphysics of power can help to give a focus on the body a more prominent place in scholarship on international relations and security studies. Throughout the chapter, I use examples drawn from the study of deportation and migration control to illustrate my claims. My call is not for a general re-adoption of the microphysics but rather sensitivity for contexts where it does provide effective and appropriate tools. Forced deportations are one such context. In my conclusion I call for disentangling the microphysics of power from the specific locations and regimes in which Foucault developed it. I argue that microphysics is not a synonym for disciplinary power. If anything the powers that invest deportation are suggestive of a microphysics of police.

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