Achille Mbembe is one of the most influential postcolonial critical theorists today. ‘Necropolitics’ is his seminal treatise of the notion of bio- and necro-power, a reconsideration of Foucault’s take on biopolitics, initially published as an article in Public Text in 2003. It is one of the texts originally included in the reading list for Ontopolitics of the future, a reading group that ran in 2018/9; Mbembe’s analysis has in the meanwhile grown into a book, recently translated into English and published in 2019. The ‘Necropolitics’ essay is, in seemingly more-or-less unchanged form, Chapter 3 in the book.
The online meeting for this session will take place on 15 May, 16.30-17.30 BST, via Zoom (meeting ID: 920 9347 3710; contact jb906 at cam.ac.uk for password).
The review below is written by Simina Dragos, MPhil student in the Faculty of Education.
Achille Mbembe’s ‘Necropolitics’
This text found me through a serendipity of sorts. Not only do I agonize over notions of biopower, sovereignty and the state of exception in my MPhil thesis, but Boris Johnson – the prime-minister of the country I live in – just gave a rather impregnating speech to lay out his government’s plan to further tackle the Coronavirus. Once you read or hear the speech, you’ll realise that Achille Mbembe’s book Necropolitics, published in November 2019 (earlier as an essay), is a timely hermeneutic which allows us to ask the important question that’s been hovering over the United Kingdom for about 2 months: who gets to live and who dies?. In other words, who is disposable and who isn’t, and how is the power to decide on this matter enacted. In this short summary, I will firstly introduce the context of the chapter we are reading by summarising the introduction and conclusion, to then give an outline of the chapter, ultimately trying to draw some links to our ongoing discussion around the Coronavirus and governance.
[All quotations used are from Mbembe (2019)]
In the introduction to the book, Mbembe sets the scene aptly, describing our contemporary world in which (racist) nationalisms are rising and relations of enmity are being reconfigured. He thus reminds us that Necropolitics is not only a matter of the, say colonial, past, but very much a characteristic of the present. Building on the work and spirit of Fanon’s critique, he explores the notion of being alive, both as the basis of exercising critique, but also as the premise of potential change. The idea of the alive human, with potentially newly found bonds to other humans, surfaces on the horizon of possibilities in the conclusion of the book as well. The figure of the passer-by invokes the universality of humanity; not in a European colonial way, but in a poetic recognition of the human condition of “journeying, of movement, and of transfiguration” (p. 187). This figure which can recreate the world, along with the awareness that Europe is no longer the centre of the world, having lost its monopoly over epistemology and history, reminded me of Walter Mignolo’s notion of delinking, and ends the book on a hopeful tone.
This is the context in which the chapter we are reading this fortnight, Necropolitics (chapter 3), is situated. The chapter starts off with the premise that sovereignty resides in the power to dictate who is able to live and who shall die – a proposition we are not that unfamiliar with, given that the first response of the UK government to the COVID-19 virus was the rather self-explanatory (and yet obscure) notion of ‘herd immunity’. [Still, this description of sovereignty did bring to mind the Leviathan (a monster I had to google) we’ve read about two sessions ago.] In this analysis of sovereignty, its relation to death and terror, but also the state of exception, Mbembe builds on Foucault’s concept of biopower, expanding it and revealing its limits. To this, he adds an understanding of friend-enemy relations fuelling the state and its wars, much like Schmitt would’ve suggested (for a simple overview of Schmitt’s friend-enemy relations see here). Overall, Mbembe explores how late modern notions of sovereignty instrumentalize life, and orchestrate the material destruction of populations, arguing that today’s forms of necropower blur the lines between resistance and suicide, sacrifice and redemption, martyrdom and freedom.
Before summarising this argument, I’ll give you a spoiler of the definition of necropower/necropolitics (although you probably figured it out already). Necropolitics is basically about the power of death in the most literal way, either killing people or reducing them to what Mbembe calls ‘the living dead’ who populate ‘death worlds’ – spaces with living conditions which allow one to barely survive. For Mbembe, necropower is a specific structure of terror – death, terror and freedom are interlinked.
In chapter 3 Mbembe guides the reader through a sort of genealogy (in a Foucauldian sense) of death in the modern state, looking at the workings of necropower in early modernity, then late modernity and then close to the present moment. The creation of an enemy of the state that must be eliminated is facilitated through the installation of a racial regime in both early and late modernity. [This alone should give us enough food for thought regarding the war on terror, Prevent etc.] Thus, modern sovereignty is inherently linked to the creation of enemies and their removal by death, drawing a link between modernity and terror which Mbembe then thoroughly explores. He does so in relation to utopias, for example, where human plurality needs to be eliminated so that the telos of history can be realised – death and terror becoming instruments of revolution. Another example is slavery as a biopolitical experimentation, in which the human slave is kept alive only as commodity, living in a state of permanent injury and loss. The colony is also presented as a site of terror, and so is the township in apartheid. What the colony and the township have in common is not only the violent racial regime, but also the organisation of space in a way that facilitates surveillance and control, though in different ways.
Mbembe then argues that the modern colonial occupation differs from the early modern occupation in the combination of the disciplinary, the biopolitical and the necropolitical. To illustrate this point, he draws on the example on Palestine, in which violence, terror, death and sovereignty are interwoven in convoluted ways (for example by appeal to a divine right), resulting in complex surveillance and control strategies. The era of globalization, the now, brought about new forms of governmentality in which terror, death and freedom are no longer monopolised by state actors, but are now also enacted by what Mbembe calls ‘war machines’. This form of governmentality can have ties with states, but is a changing formation of state and/or non-state actors, embedded in global political economies, involved in extraction and in the creation of global migration movements. War machines work through different technologies of destruction: technologized, efficient, immediate ones, mirroring the ideologies which shape our world.
I was unable to summarise the entire chapter and the important nuances of Mbembe’s analysis in this space, but I do want to highlight some concepts which I think are useful for thinking through our ‘here and now’, beyond the already mentioned questions Mbembe raises. For example, the confinement of people – be they Roma or refugees – in settlements basically creates ‘death worlds’. The rapidity of spread of the virus and its severe health implications mark disposable bodies, cornered by military (see here or here) keeping them away from their livelihood based on informal economies, earning an income that only allows daily survival. Thus, they are transformed in ‘living dead’. Moreover, the COVID-19 crisis can also be unpacked through the logics of survival and martyrdom described in the chapter. I find it particularly revealing how essential workers, such as nurses or grocery shop workers, are constructed as heroes, bordering on martyrs, whose bodies become the weapon against the “invisible killer” (see speech) in this war imaginary that the government construed for us to process death.
As a conclusion, I want to leave you with a quotation which could perhaps be part of our discussion on Friday (as if I hadn’t already trespassed the world limit severely):
Is losing everything or nearly everything—better, letting go of everything, or renouncing everything or nearly everything—the condition, then, under which we may win some serenity in this world and age of turbulence, a world in which, oftentimes, what one has does not tally with what one is and what one earns entertains only a distant relation with what one loses? (p. 185)
I look forward to talking to you all soon 😊