Necropolitics is the use of social and political power to dictate how some people may live and how some must die. The deployment of necropolitics creates what Achille Mbembe calls deathworlds, or "new and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to living conditions that confer upon them the status of the living dead." Mbembe, author of On the Postcolony, was the first scholar to explore the term in depth in his 2003 article, and later, his 2019 book of the same name. Mbembe identifies racism as a prime driver of necropolitics, stating that racialized people's lives are systemically cheapened and habituated to loss.
Necropolitics is often discussed as an extension of biopower, the Foucauldian term for the use of social and political power to control people's lives. Foucault first discusses the concepts of biopower and biopolitics in his 1976 work, The Will to Knowledge: The History of Sexuality Volume I. Foucault presents biopower as a mechanism for "protecting", but acknowledges that this protection often manifests itself as subjugation of non-normative populations. The creation and maintenance of institutions that prioritize certain populations as more valuable is, according to Foucault, how population control has been normalized.
Mbembe's concept of necropolitics acknowledges that contemporary state-sponsored death cannot be explained by the theories of biopower and biopolitics, stating that "under the conditions of necropower, the lines between resistance and suicide, sacrifice and redemption, martyrdom and freedom are blurred." Jasbir Puar assumes that discussions of biopolitics and necropolitics must be intertwined, because "the latter makes its presence known at the limits and through the excess of the former; [while] the former masks the multiplicity of its relationships to death and killing in order to enable the proliferation of the latter."
Mbembe was clear that necropolitics is more than simply a right to kill (Foucault's droit de glaive). While his view of necropolitics does include various forms of political violence such as the right to impose social or civil death, and the right to enslave others, it is also about the right to expose other people (including a country's own citizens) to mortal danger and death. Cultural theorist Lauren Berlant calls this gradual and persistent process of elimination slow death. According to Berlant, only specific populations are "marked out for wearing out" and the conditions of being worn out and dying are intimately linked with "the ordinary reproduction of [daily] life."
Necropolitics is a theory of the walking dead, in which specific bodies are forced to remain in suspended states of being located somewhere between life and death. Mbembe provided a way of analyzing these "contemporary forms of subjugation of life to the power of death." He utilized examples of slavery, apartheid, the colonization of Palestine and the figure of the suicide bomber to illustrate differing forms of necropower over the body (statist, racialized, a state of exception, urgency, martyrdom) and how this reduces people to precarious life conditions.
Mbembe's understanding of sovereignty, according to which the living are characterized as "free and equal men and women," informs how he expands the definition of necropolitics to include not only individuals experiencing death, but also experiencing social or political death. An individual unable to set their own limitations due to social or political interference is then considered, by Mbembe, to not be truly alive, as they are no longer sovereign over their own body. The ability for a state to subjugate populations so much so that they do not have the liberty of autonomy over their lives is an example of necropolitics. This creates zones of existence for the living dead, those who no longer have sovereignty over their own body. R. Guy Emerson writes that necropolitics exists beyond the limits of administrative or state power being imposed on bodies, but also becomes internalized, coming to control behaviors over fear of death or fear of exposure to death worlds.
Frédéric Le Marcis discusses how the contemporary African prison system acts as an example of necropolitics. Referring to the concept of living death as "stuckness", Le Marcis details life in prison as a state-sponsored creation of death; some examples he provides include malnourishment through a refusal to feed inmates, a lack of adequate healthcare, and the excusing of certain violent actions between inmates. Racism, discussed by Foucault as an integral component of wielding biopower, is also present in Le Marcis' discussion of the necropolitical prison system, specifically regarding the ways in which murder and suicide are often overlooked among inmates. Mbembe also contends that matters of homicide and suicide within state-governed institutions housing "less valuable" members of the necroeconomy are simply another example of social or political death.
Queer and trans necropolitics
Jasbir Puar coined the term queer necropolitics to analyze the post-9/11 queer outrage regarding gay bashing and simultaneous queer complicity with Islamophobia. Puar utilizes the discussions of Mbembe to address the dismissal of racism within the LGBTQ+ community as a form of assimilation and distancing from the non-normative populations generally affected by necropolitics. Puar's research centers specifically on the idea that, "the homosexual other is white, the racial other is straight," leaving no room for queer people of color, and ultimately accepting their fate as a non-valuable population destined for social, political, or literal death. Puar's prime example of this lives within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which Israel, considered a haven for LGBTQ individuals, is then spared criticism from its Islamophobic violence against the Palestinian people, particularly queer Palestinians.
Many scholars use Puar's queer necropolitics in conjunction with Judith Butler's concept of a grievable life. Butler's discussion of the HIV/AIDS epidemic acts as a necessary extension of the queer necropolitical field, as it addresses specifically the shortcomings of Foucault's concept of biopower for non-normative, less societally valuable populations, those populations experiencing multiple intersections of Other-ness. Butler connects the lives of queer individuals to that of, "war casualties that the United States inflicts," noting that one cannot publicly grieve these deaths because in order to do so, they must be deemed noteworthy by those who inflicted death upon them. Butler claims that the obituary is a tool for normalizing the necropolitics of queer lives, as well as the lives of people of color.
In “Trans Necropolitics: A Transnational Reflection on Violence, Death, and the Trans of Color Afterlife” Snorton and Haritaworn investigate the necropolitical nature of trans people of color's lives. As they make sense of “trans of color afterlife,” Snorton and Haritaworn examine the ‘making dead’ of trans people of color, and especially trans women of color, as an intentionally violent political strategy. This reveals society’s incredible failure to protect and care for trans people of color during their lives.
- Mbembe, Achille (October 2019). Necropolitics. Durham: Duke University Press. ISBN 978-1-4780-0651-0.
- Mbembe, Achille (2003). "Necropolitics" (PDF). Public Culture. 15 (1): 11–40. doi:10.1215/08992363-15-1-11. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2015-10-10.
- Foucault, Michel (1978). The Will to Knowledge: The History of Sexuality Volume I. London: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-012474-8.
- Puar, Jasbir K. (2007). Terrorist assemblages: homonationalism in queer times. Durham: Duke University Press. pp. 32–79. ISBN 9780822340942.
- Bratich, Jack Z. (2022). On microfascism : gender, war, and death. Brooklyn, NY. p. 10. ISBN 978-1-94217-349-6.
- Berlant, Lauren (Summer 2007). "Slow Death". Critical Inquiry. 33 (4): 754.
The phrase slow death refers to the physical wearing out of a population and the deterioration of people in that population that is very nearly a defining condition of their experience and historical existence.
- Berlant, Lauren (Summer 2007). "Slow Death". Critical Inquiry. 33 (4): 761.
- Berlant, Lauren (Summer 2007). "Slow Death". Critical Inquiry. 33 (4): 762.
- Guy Emerson, R. (2019). Necropolitics: Living Death in Mexico. Springer. pp. 2–3. ISBN 9783030123024.
- Le Marcis, Frédéric (2019). "Life in a Space of Necropolitics: Toward an Economy of Value in Prisons". Ethnos. 84 (1): 74–95. doi:10.1080/00141844.2018.1428207. S2CID 217508904.
- Butler, Judith (2004). Precarious life: the powers of mourning and violence. London: Verso. pp. 20–35. ISBN 978-1844670055.
- Haritaworn, Jin; Kuntsman, Adi; Posocco, Silvia, eds. (2012). Queer necropolitics. London: Routledge. ISBN 9780415644761.
- C. Riley Snorton; Jin Haritaworn (2013). "Trans Necropolitics: A Transnational Reflection on Violence, Death, and the Trans of Color Afterlife". In Susan Stryker; Aren Aizura (eds.). Transgender Studies Reader (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.