Annotation: Cheah, Pheng. 2010. Biopower and the New International Division of Reproductive Labor.


Cheah, Pheng. 2010. Biopower and the New International Division of Reproductive Labor. In, Can the Subaltern Speak? Reflections on the History of an Idea. Pp. 179-212. Rosalind Morris (ed.) New York: Columbia University Press.


Cheah reopens Spivak’s critique of Foucault by treating Foucauldian biopower as operating in the “new international division of power” (NIDL), citing as a case study the Filipino women domestic workers in Singapore. Contrary to Spivak’s critique of Foucault that his “analytics of power fails to adequately engage with the irreducibility of economic exploitation” (183), Cheah argues that Foucault in fact focuses on “how capitalism functions” (183), and on how industrial capitalism is made possible by “a new form of power that is neither ideological nor repressive” (184). Biopower “does not negate its targets… but actually positively shapes and produces its objects through discourses of truth.” It is “infrastructural because it fabricates the economic basis of capitalism… the very capacity of the laboring body as a useful productive force” (185). He then turns to discuss foreign domestic workers (FDW) in the NIDL. NIDL is the “result of the relocation or ‘outsourcing’ of production processes…to developing countries with lower labour costs either through foreign direct investment or international subcontracting” (189). World Bank and IMF policies in the last decades have affected the Southeast Asian (SEA) region, with poorer countries such as the Philippines resorting to the export of workers to manage their debts. This has since created a regional division of labor in SEA and “is also a form of biopower, but it is the biopower of economically weak nation-states” (191). Cheah finds that the feminized traffic of FDWs to Singapore is also a node where the techniques of biopower of different nation-states “intersect, converge, and clash” (192). Meanwhile, narratives of dehumanization of FDWs are mediated by middle-class women, by feminist and humanitarian NGOs, and by the Singaporean state itself for its own economic needs and interests. Cheah argues, “In this well-meaning latter-day version of the transformation of serfs into consensual wage labor, FDWs are always means or tools” (206). He writes that the “brutal fact” is that the FDW is brought to Singapore because of the presumed better value of her employer’s time and effort than hers. For Cheah, the only solution is for employers to “desist from hiring FDWs” (206).


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