Achille Mbembe: Necropolitics

Key Concept

The economic and political management of human populations through their exposure to death has become a global phenomenon. Wars, genocides, refugee “crisis”, ecocide and contemporary processes of pauperization and precarization reveal how increasing masses of individuals are now governed through their direct and indirect exposure to death. In order to unpack those processes, Achille Mbembe came up with the notion of necropolitics, first in 2003 with an essay bearing the same name, and then in 2016, with the book Politiques de l’inimitié, translated and published in English in 2019, as Necropolitics.1See: Achille Mbembe (2003). Necropolitics. Public Culture 15 (1): 11-40 (trans. Libby Meintjes).  (2016). Politiques de l’Inimitié, Paris: La Découverte. (2019). Necropolitics. Durham/London: Duke University Press (trans. Steve Corcoran) With this latter notion, Mbembe explores and radicalizes Foucault’s concept of biopolitics.

In the last lecture of “Society must be Defended” and in the last chapter of The History of Sexuality (Vol.1), Foucault noticed how biopolitics, that is, the positive power over life can become a deadly form of power. It is not only a “calculated management of life” but also a “power to expose a whole population to death”.2Michel Foucault, (1978) The History of Sexuality. Volume 1: An Introduction. New-York: Pantheon Books (trans. Robert Hurley), pp. 137 & 140. Drawing on the dramatic experiences of the Nazi and Stalinist regimes and on the global nuclear threat, Foucault highlighted how human masses are eliminated in the name of the protection and survival of a nation, a people and/or a class. Besides, he noted how racism has become the political tool that enables the biological division of the human species and the justification of the extermination of those considered inferior. Foucault insisted modern racism has developed with the “colonizing genocide”, so that the right to take life could be justified.3Michel Foucault, (1997),“Society Must Be Defended”. Lectures at the Collège de France 1975-76. New-York: Picador (trans. David Macey), p. 257.  Giorgio Agamben and Roberto Esposito have explored these foucauldian observations with the notions of “homo saccer” and “thanatopolitics”, insisting respectively on the sovereign right to kill with impunity and the biological/pathological justifications of humans’ exterminations.4Giorgio Agamben (1998), Homo Sacer. Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Stanford: Stanford University Press (trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen). Roberto Esposito (2008), Bíos. Biopolitics and Philosophy,Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press (trans. Timothy Campbell) Mbembe’s necropolitics offers a novel approach as it draws both on Foucault and a decolonial approach (often inspired in Frantz Fanon) and conceives of necropolitics as the political making of spaces and subjectivities in an in-between of life and death. The colony in general and the slavery plantation in particular have given birth to those necropolitical practices — fostered by white supremacy — that still continue today.

The subjugation of life to the power of death

Necropolitics entails the “subjugation of life to the power of death”. In “our contemporary world” — following Mbembe — various types of “weapons are deployed in the interest of maximum destruction of persons and the creation of death-worlds, new and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjugated to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living-dead”.5Achille Mbembe (2003). “Necropolitics”, pp. 39 & 40 This production of “death-worlds” is carried on by three main factors I will define subsequently. On the one hand, necropolitics entails a necroeconomy. Modern capitalism would produce nowadays an excess of populations that could not be exploited anymore but require to be managed precisely through their exposure to deadly dangers and risks. The so-called “climate crisis” is maybe the most illustrative example of this necroeconomy, along with the current destruction of public/social goods and rights. On the other hand, necropolitics draws on the confinement of certain populations in particular spaces: campsites. Relying on Agamben’s insights, Mbembe holds that the camp-form (refugees, prisons, banlieues, suburbs, favelas) has become a prevailing way of governing unwanted populations. The latter are enclosed in precarious and militarized spaces so that they can be controlled, harassed and potentially killed. It is “a permanent condition of ‘living in pain’ ”.6Achille Mbembe (2003). “Necropolitics”, p. 39.

The third and “key characteristic” of necropolitics is “to produce death in a large scale”. This aspect is developed, in particular, in a subpart untitled “Relation Without Desire” from the First Chapter “Exit From Democracy” of Necropolitics (2019). It is possible to explain this characteristic, highlighting seven traits that, according to my understanding, seem to underpin Mbembe’s account on the issue.

1) State terror: The State persecutes, imprisons and eliminates certain populations so that political and social contestations can be neutralized. Those repressive tactics are operated not only by totalitarian regimes but also by contemporary liberal and illiberal countries.

2) The shared use of violence: In many cases, the State does not have and willingly shares the monopoly of violence with other private actors (i.e. militias, paramilitary), increasing the circulation and use of weapons in society. The latter is therefore divided between “those who are protected (because armed) from those who are not”.7Achille Mbembe (2019). Necropolitics, p. 35

3) The “link of enmity”: According to Mbembe, in a society where the possession and nonpossessions of weapons define one’s social value, all social bonds are destroyed. The link of enmity normalizes therefore the “idea that power can be acquired and exercised only at the price of another’s life”.8Ibid.

4) War: “Coercion itself has become a market commodity”.9(2019). Necropolitics, p. 84. Nowadays, war and terror have become modes of production on their own, and as such need to generate new military markets.10p. 36

5) The predation of natural resources: In order to exploit valuable natural resources, populations are displaced and eliminated (i.e. indigenous people in the Amazon rain forest) though the active and hidden collaboration of the State, public forces, international corporations and criminal organizations.

6) Different modes of killing: The exposure to death is multiple: tortures, mutilations, mass killings, high-tech elimination through “drone strikes” represent various modalities of necropolitical devices.

7) Different moral justifications: According to Mbembe, atrocities are justified for various reasons such as the eradication of corruption, different types of “therapeutic liturgy”, “the desire for sacrifice”, “messianic eschatologies”, and even “modern discourses of utilitarianism, materialism, and consumerism”.11Ibid.

Necropolitics implies therefore a closed entrenchment of political, economic and military devices, oriented towards the eliminations of human populations. But along with this aspect, necropolitics is also deployed through “small doses” of death that structure the everyday life of individuals.12pp. 36-38

Less human than human

Along with mass killings and exterminations, Mbembe argues that necropolitics implies a surveillance on individuals not so much for the purposes of discipline, but to extract from them a maximum of utility, such as in the case of sexual slavery.13p. 36 The instillation of those small dosesof death in the daily existences of many individuals also comes from “unbounded social, economic, and symbolic violence” that destroy their bodies and the value of their social existence.14p. 39 Daily humiliations perpetrated by public forces on certain populations, the strategy of “small massacres” inflicted one day at a time, and the absence of basic social goods (e.g. sanitation, housing) bring about a kind of existence whose value “is the sort of death able to be inflicted upon it”.15p. 38 Under those circumstances, necropolitics consists

in the power to manufacture an entire crowd of people who specifically live at the edge of life, or even on its outer edge — people for whom living means continually standing up to death …. This life is a superfluous one, therefore, whose price is so meager that it has no equivalence, whether market or — even less — human …. Nobody even bears the slightest feelings of responsibility or justice towards this sort of life or, rather, death. Necropolitical power proceeds by a sort of inversion between life and death, as if life was merely death’s medium.16pp. 37 & 38.

Under everyday necropolitics, a mass of populations live under extreme precarious conditions and as such, can be exploited and eliminated “naturally”. Mbembe singles out racism as the main criteria that allow necropolitics to be performed and expand in society. Along with an hydraulic racismthat defines institutional racism (State, law, administration), Mbembe pays attention to a so-called nanoracism that is deployed in everyday social relations, and is designed to stigmatize, to injure and to humiliate “those not considered to be one of us”.17p. 58. Taking into account current political, social and symbolic forms of violence that are deployed worldwide, Mbembe’s notion of necropolitics represents a relevant heuristic category for contemporary critical thought.

Antonio Pele is an Associate Professor at the Law School of the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro.

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