COVID-19: Biopolitics or necropolitics?

Bily López

Biopolitics and necropolitics are a couple of concepts that have been used by different thinkers lately, in order to account for specific phenomena that occur in the world.

Sr. García, El país

If Michel Foucault was not the first one to use the concept of biopolitics, it is within his work that the concept became relevant. In very general terms, we can affirm that biopolitics are, for Foucault, a specific form of making use of biopower. The power over life, o biopower, can be practiced in two different ways: as anatomopolitics (when it is practiced as discipline over the bodies) o as biopolitics (when it is practiced as control over populations). For the French thinker, some exercises of power in contemporary societies can be understood from the technologies of power developed from the 17th and 19th centuries on.

The term biopolitics refers to a form of governmentalism which rationality is based on calculation, administration and the exploitation of a territory’s resources, including the population that constitutes it. This governmental exercise is not possible at the margins of the capitalist mode of production. For the exercise of its power over life, the biopolitical reason takes into account the populations’ life as a mass phenomenon, in a way that elements such as natality, mortality, health, disease, sexuality, security and economic activities fall completely under its responsibility: this is about the maximization of the population’s production depending on all the other resources available to generate wealth. The key principle that rules the biopolitical governmentalism is “make live and let die”. 

After Foucault, various authors have been appropriating his hypotheses to discuss them, extend them, correct them or radicalize them. During our 21st century, a lot of theories about racism, war, security, immunity, the State of Exception and the defenselessness of humans’ life from the biopolitical paradigm have emerged: they propose and suppose that individuals in contemporary societies are subject to orders of discipline, control and vigilance that are practically inviolable.

Within the spectrum, Achille Mbembe warned us that some societies exist –some are contemporary societies- in which the paradigm of sovereignty does not consist in making live and letting die, but rather in a deliberate will of “making die”. In order to support his proposition, Mbembe uses specific examples such as the African plantations, the occupied territories in Irak, or the South African apartheid regime. In those cases, we would talk about necropolitics instead of biopolitics: what is calculated, administrated, controlled and produced here is not life but death itself.

El quinto poder

It is important to note that death is not absent from the biopolitical paradigm. The calculation here is over some forms of life that must be produced and cared for, and all the other forms of life that do not fit in this spectrum are simply led to give up on life, under rigorous calculations; in a biopolitical paradigm, death is indeed calculated, tolerated, it happens, but it is not produced. In the necropolitical paradigm, instead, death does not only occur, it is not only calculated, it is produced, actively and openly; the murder is the fundamental exercise of sovereignty.

It becomes then clear that the actual pandemic situation that the world is facing is a situation that is clearly described in the general approach of biopolitics. It is necessary to become more careful if we want to apply the concept of necropolitics in a more rigorous way and in different contexts than those originally signaled by Mbembe.

Taking into account the fact that capitalism and liberalism have been mutating from the 18th century on; that nowadays’ capitalism is not the same in every part of the world; and that what is meant by the word life in the 21st century is not similar to the understanding of it from three century ago: shouldn’t we start to suspect some precision of the biopolitical paradigm in more accurate diagnostics? Shouldn’t we start to leave behind the fascination for biopolitics in order to find determinations of the population, and finally start to promote new conceptual schemes that would allow new forms of liberation, production and riot?

Mexico City, April 8th 2020.

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