Bloomberg's biopolitics: the molecular mayor

Looking back on three terms of Michael Bloomberg we see a mayor who sought to fundamentally change New York’s character through a series of interventions in the City’s body and the bodies of its citizens.

Max Holleran Sam Holleran
2 January 2014

Looking back on the three terms of Michael Bloomberg we see a mayor who sought to fundamentally change New York’s character through a series of micro-interventions in the City’s body and the bodies of its citizens. From market reports to body mass indexes, the mayor’s life work has been the analysis and management of risk. Biopolitics is a word out of favor these days. Michel Foucault's term for the way power is manifested at the level of the body is all but lost to academics and obscure to the general public. Biopower—practices related to corporeal control, particularly based in matters of health and reproduction—was one of Foucault's most central ideas. While the theory has fallen out of vogue in the academic sphere, it has re-emerged in the most unlikely of places: the governing strategies of another Michael. Bloomberg, a true Foucaultian, brought governance to the nano level. As he reaches the twilight of his three terms in office (and, presumably, his career in electoral politics), many have lauded his interest in health as his most visionary quality. The unsettling part of Bloomberg’s biopolitics is the who and what that gets managed.

Since he took office in 2002, the mayor has transformed the City through rezonings, street closures, and waterfront development while simultaneously advocating for changes in the bodies of New Yorkers. Bloomberg’s strategy appears to be the exact opposite of a typical progressive like Bill de Blasio, his successor, whose base-building approach to politics (nurture ideas so they can jump up in scale) comes out of the world of community organizing.  While Bloomberg advocated for big projects, he did so by taking big ideas, breaking them into bits, then tunneling down into the city, and depositing them in the hope that they would have the soil to grow. The terrain that proved richest for Bloomberg’s policies was in New York’s marginal places: low-income communities, communities of color, and other historically underrepresented groups.

Foucault’s biopolitics

For Foucault, the corporeal was always the political. He promoted the study of the minor ways in which people accept power in daily life. The body, his theories assert, matters in myriad ways: it is central not just to our sexual lives but also to control administered by the state.  Biopolitics– how power is asserted at the level of the corporeal—scaled down even to the molecular. It represents a wide variety and intensity of power relations: ranging from vaccination to torture, from kindergarten etiquette to supermax solitary confinement. It is the state’s way of making the body ‘docile’—ready to accept further instructions when required. Foucault’s later work chronicles the Raison d’État:  the reason for the state’s existence, from the medieval concern with the salvation of the soul, to political economy, to the health of the social body, and, finally, to the individual: the body in space.  

Forty years ago, French academics were struggling with their long overdue break-up with traditional Marxism in the wake of Prague ’68. Unsatisfied with their own mini-revolution in Paris of the same year they began to look inward. They threw out Mao’s “Little Red Book” and Lenin’s Revolution and the State in favor of a more nuanced theory of power— one in which the wielding of force is done with a scalpel, not a sledgehammer. This group increasingly focused inward and away from the state and class, asking: how do people accept authority in places that we would not expect? With the door thrown open in the 1960s, postmodernists poured in: eschewing the influence of capitalism, for the most part, and choosing to focus on a range of power structures like heteronormativity, patriarchy, racism, and ableism. Foucault was at the head of the pack and his work was soon adopted by theorists of gender and sexuality as their magna carta. At the same time, changes in technology, urbanization, and medicine made his work even more relevant: court mandated ankle bracelets, hair follicle drug testing, surveillance cameras, and GPS came into wide, and contested, use. Targets of biopolitical interventions were almost always poorer and darker. In the United States, this came in the form of urinalysis for suspected drug use, home visits from welfare and child services, fingerprinting, metal detectors in schools, and a surfeit of other state and private measures to guarantee ‘social integrity.’  

In 1981, Bloomberg founded his first company, Innovative Market Systems, which was based not on a mathematical equation but on biological principles. It’s aim was not to grow a single firm, but rather, to speed up the metabolism of the financial industry itself by providing a constant and exceptionally detailed picture of the market’s ecosystem through terminals sold to brokerage firms. Bloomberg’s fascination with metabolism extended into all aspects of his mayoralty: not just the heartbeats of a healthier citizenry but the inner workings of the city’s own decision-making system. The mayor’s City Hall ‘bullpen’ is an innovation in ‘smart city’ governance imported from technologically enabled trading floors and brokerages. It is a fully open space crammed with computer terminals, scuttling officials, and ringing phones: it is a giant digestive tract for the polis’ complex and departmentalized body. 311, the municipal services hotline (an idea Bloomberg lifted from his 2001 Democratic opponent Mark Green), is a citywide nervous system dispensing information on everything from “dead cat disposal protocol” to tenant rights, enabled by a new vascular system of fibre optic cables, mobile phone receptors, and CCTV eyeballs. The thinking was that if data could be accessed more more quickly it would empower politicians to pursue smart governance with the same zeal that brokers embraced the accelerated trading environment made possible by the Bloomberg Terminal.

Bloomberg and the body

While Rudolph Giuliani's administration had a myopic focus on ‘the street’ (with all of its gritty NYPD Blue nightstick-swinging-cuff-snapping implications) the apple in the eye of Bloomberg’s people (particularly his health czars, Thomas Frieden and Thomas Farley) was always the body. With this focus came undeniable advances in public health including a switch to less-polluting heating oils in major buildings, a smoking ban in public places, and a sincere effort to combat combined-sewer-overflow in environmentally sensitive areas. However, these changes to the body of the city came with more insidious demands on the bodies of the metropolis’ citizens, particularly the ‘insalubrious’ poor.  

When he took office in 2002, Michael Bloomberg tried out a big ideas approach to governance but was soon stymied. New York’s Byzantine political allegiances did not mesh well with his boardroom boss mentality. Many of his most ambitious plans ran aground without the support of outer-borough politicians (who he purposefully neglected or simply failed to court). His take-away from these early policy burns was not to beef-up his political muscles but to re-focus. By the end of his first term, Bloomberg moved down to the micro level of the body. Governance on the molecular level sought big returns through a series of small tweaks and minimal public input: the stats, once crunched, would not lie and the people were not meant to interfere.

The stakes of regulating soda size, calorie counts, trans-fats, and cigarettes seem quite low in relation to the War in Iraq or the meltdown of Wall Street. However, following the postmodernists—that unloved group of sentence-muddlers whose invocation can ruin even the most vibrant dinner party—we must pay attention to how power manifests itself in the minutest forms in order to understand it at all. The micro political skirmishes of the Bloomberg era prove instructive. Bloomberg’s ban on smoking, pitched by Department of Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden as the World Trade Center remains smoldered, was largely successful because it was in step with smoking bans in hundreds of other cities globally. It came after 20 plus years of public information campaigns that helped frame smoking as a truly unacceptable risk. When the ban went into effect smokers were de-glamorized and very familiar with the public service announcements, it had been nearly five years since the tobacco settlement and ten years since the expunging of characters like Joe Camel. Smokers were grimly resigned to their habit—knowing full well that it could be a mortal danger.

The Bloombergian ‘wars’—against trans fats and salt—were significantly less successful because there was scant public discourse on the health risks posed by these products. Bloomberg also ruffled the feathers of those in the fine dining industry when he implied that their kitchens might also be up for scrutiny. The attempted takedown of big soda—an American staple—proved even more difficult to win, because Bloomberg’s proposal came before a widespread awareness of the adverse effects of the product (and because the effects are only dangerous in large quantities—quantities that most believe they have the self control to avoid). The ban on sugary drinks did not go down smoothly. Bloomberg’s image as a tisk-tisker, a micro manager, and nanny proved hard to shake.  

The incident where Bloomberg stands closest to early prying health reformers is probably his entry into the breastfeeding debate with the botched “Latch on NYC.” The initiative directed the City’s maternity wards to hide their infant formula in order to promote breastfeeding. This law mirrored similar initiatives in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, but it was the mayor’s dismissive handling of the bodies of new mothers that earned him the ire of the media and drew comparisons to the well meaning but thoroughly out-of-touch reformers of a century ago. As the Atlantic dryly noted: “giving birth to a baby does not make you an infant.”

The mayor’s policies truly ran aground when they intersected with low-income, historically underrepresented, and new immigrant groups. His relentless pursuit of obesity in communities of color came with more than a pinch of slum charity moralism. It was ‘these people’ who couldn’t control their impulses. This double moral was more than just perceived: when, during the summer of 2011, the billionaire mayor was asked why working class New Yorkers were being ticketed by the hundreds for drinking beer on Rockaway Beach, while Upper East Siders sipped white wine with impunity at the Philharmonic’s performances in Central Park, Bloomberg noted that the classical music enthusiasts “were far better behaved.”

The 20th century was defined by a narrowing in focus of American public health reform goals: the century started with the Progressive Movement’s interest in virtually every aspect of living together in cities and ended with a focus on only the most eminently curable woes within the human body. Early reformers, inspired by Jacob Riis, attempted to control slum neighborhoods through modifying the built environment with new laws that regulated apartment windows, occupancy, and airshafts. The reordering of physical space quickly moved to corrective measures at the level of the body. Women’s organizations, like Jane Adams’s famous Hull House in Chicago, dealt with the thorny issue of reproduction in immigrant slums and, a generation later, family planning became an important aspect of urban reform across the United States. The public health advocates in the employ of the Bloomberg administration continue to pursue a wide variety of well-meaning health policy reforms, and—very similar to settlement house forebears—they were largely aimed at those who supposedly cannot care for themselves.

Many of those who object to Bloombergian biopolitics do so not because of the substance of  the regulations but because of their indelicate implementation. Bill de Blasio has promised to continue to push for some of Bloomberg’s signature public health initiatives, including a ban on large sugary beverages. What he has vowed to stop—and made a centerpiece of his campaign—is stop ‘n frisk, the practice of stopping, searching, and interrogating young Black and Latino men without probable cause. This should give us hope, not for an end to government policy that seeks to discipline the body– Foucault famously had a very bleak outlook on the possibility to resist all power and particularly the biopolitical variant—but hope for a more equitable application of measures that intersect with our physical beings. It’s not just that New Yorkers should have been given longer consultation periods, more public input, or more explanatory materials to demystify new systems that will regulate them at the bodily level, it’s that these systems must also be receptive to qualitative, not just quantitative commands. They must be—unlike the dream machines of Bloomberg—fallible. There has to be an override for the policy black boxes of Bloomberg’s creation.

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