Nasser Mufti: Bio-Politics and Greater Britain

Michel Foucault

by Nasser Mufti

This essay was peer-reviewed by the editorial board of b2o: an online journal.

In his lectures at the Collège de France in 1976, Michel Foucault proclaims that the emergence of bio-politics was “one of the greatest transformations political right underwent in the nineteenth century” because it overlaid the “sovereign’s old right—to take life or let live” with the power to “make live and let die” (Foucault 2003: 241). Bio-politics, along with its critical vocabulary of “state racism,” “regularized life” (81, 245), “fostering life” and “regulations of the population” (1990: 138, 139), have become essential to understanding what Étienne Balibar, with Foucault in mind, calls the “great ‘transition’ between the world of subjection and the world of right and discipline” (Balibar 1991: 55).

Overlooked by most students of Foucault’s critique of sovereignty is Morley Roberts’s treatise, Bio-politics: An Essay in Physiology and Politics of the Social and Somatic Organism. Written in 1912 and published in 1938, the book argues for the state’s re-invention as a biological entity. As Roberts explains in the preface, “It is not to be expected that the politician should apply himself to the study of the endocrine organs, or ductless glands of the body, but a little knowledge of them might help him understand more perfectly the nature of his own difficulties in relation with the organized bodies of any kind—from empires and nations down to the turbulent committees among his own constituents […] He might even hear of the Struggle of the Parts and might possibly learn that I had reasonably described the social life of the body as a state of hostile symbiosis” (Roberts 1938: xiii). Roberts’s idea of the state, as it turns out, is imperial through and through. And its vitalism extends from the domestic squabbles of “turbulent committees” to the imperial peripheries. This global polity is seemingly under permanent duress. For it is hard not to read what he calls the “hostile symbiosis” or the “Struggle of the Parts” as the rise of anti-colonial movements in the peripheries (Ireland, India, South Africa, for example), which in 1912 were increasingly crystalizing as nationalist projects that contested British imperial rule.

Roberts’s text is the outcome of a peculiar intellectual trajectory. He worked for the India Office in the late-1870s, and travelled through much of the British empire in the 1880s, spending much of his time in Australia, Canada, South Africa and the United States. Between 1886 and 1906, Roberts published over two dozen novels, travelogues, numerous short stories, and a biography of George Gissing, who was a friend of his from college. Not unlike the imperial adventure tales of writers like H. Rider Haggard, G. A. Henty, William Henry Hudson and Robert Louis Stevenson, the colonies loom especially large in Roberts’s tales. Roberts stopped writing fiction in the 1910s, focusing instead of publishing texts like Bio-Politics, including also Warfare in the Human Body (1922) and The Behavior of Nations (1941).

Roberts’s language in Bio-Politics oscillates between the registers of biology and politics so much so that, according to him, nothing is lost in translation. Biological forms map perfectly onto geopolitical forms. The structures that organize an organism’s life, it turns out, are the same as those of politics. The effect of this formal conjuncture is borderline absurd prose. To take one example, in a chapter on “Politics and Colonial Protozoa,” Roberts makes the analogy between Proterospongia Haeckelii and imperial geopolitics. He describes Proterospongia Haeckelii as “a primitive sponge” where “there can be seen on the gelatinous surface of the colony cup-shaped flagellate cells, while, in the interior, there are only non-flagellate amoebae.” On this gelatinous continent are two types of organisms, one at the extremities of the “gelatinous surface,” and the other inside of it. “But these flagellates are not fixed,” Roberts explains, “they are capable of migrating to the surface, where they soon become cup-shaped and flagellate and take up the functions of those they displaced. These again migrate from the surface and return for a time to the primitive amoeba form” (108). Roberts uses the example to argue that the British empire not be seen as a static territory, but as a dynamic relation. The spongy gelatinous “continent” is not a fixed geographic category for Roberts, but is mobile and modular, capable of inverting its coordinates so that interiors become its exteriors, intra-national becomes extra-national, metropole becomes colony, and vice versa.

What kind of historical context makes it possible for someone like Roberts to conflate the metropolitan center with the periphery, and moreover, conflate these two radically different schemas with no limits? One answer, it seems to me, is “Greater Britain.” During the British empire’s most ambitious years towards the end of the nineteenth century, Britain was often said to have formed an imperial nation-state with its colonies. J. R. Seeley, for example, celebrated the impact of technology on the British empire in a decidedly vitalist key: “Science has given to the political organism a new circulation, which is steam, and a new nervous system, which is electricity” (Seeley 1914: 86-7). In “Saxondom,” Seeley contemplates, “Canada and Australia are to us as Kent and Cornwall,” suggesting a transformation of geographic distance into domestic proximity in a way not unlike Roberts’s Haeckelii (63). That Roberts (and to a lesser degree Seeley) make a space beyond the bounds of the empire unthinkable in the very years Britain’s colonies were first declaring their independence from Britain tells us something about why the geopolitical terrain of Bio-Politics is as mutable and elastic as it is. While Roberts’s turn to biology might seem to “de-center” the British empire (in ways not dissimilar to how scholars of empire have turned to the language of networks, webs and systems), the politics behind his biological tropes is rooted in a familiar imperial paradigm.

But one thing is certain: Roberts makes it impossible to think of bio-politics outside of an imperial milieu. Scholars like Ann Laura Stoler and Achille Mbembe have in their own ways extended, adapted and decentered Foucault’s genealogy of bio-politics from Europe to the peripheries (see Stoler 1995; Mbembe 2003). But Roberts offers another way to approach the question of bio-politics—namely, through the triumphant, jingoistic discourse of Greater Britain and its other, anti-colonial nationalism.


Étienne Balibar. 1991. “Citizen Subject.” In Who Comes After the Subject?, edited by Eduardo Cadava, Peter Connor, Jean-Luc Nancy. London: Routledge.

Foucault, Michel. 2003. “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-6. Translated by David Macey. New York: Picador.

Foucault, Michel. 1990. An Introduction. Vol. 1 of The History of Sexuality. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books.

Mbembe, Achille. 2003. “Necropolitics.” Public Culture 15, no. 1: 11-40.

Roberts, Morley. 1938. Bio-Politics: An Essay in the Physiology, Pathology and Politics of the Social and Somatic Organism. London: Dent.

Seeley, J. R. 1914. The Expansion of England: Two Courses of Lectures London: Macmillan and Co..

Stoler, Laura Ann. 1995. Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault’s History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things. Durham: Duke University Press.