Achille Mbembe: The necropolitics of a pandemic

… the ultimate expression of sovereignty resides, to a large degree, in the power and the capacity to dictate who may live and who must die.

Achille Mbembe, Necropolitics

From a brazilian newspaper, an interview with Achille Mbembe …

Mbembe is known for having coined the term “necropolitics”.  In the essay of the same name, he analyses the way in which governments decide who lives and who dies, and in which way they will die.

Necropolitics reveals itself in the fact that the virus does not affect everyone in the same way.  There is a debate about prioritising care for the young and letting the old die.  And there are still those, such as Jair Bolsonaro, who insist that the economy cannot stop even if a part of the population must die to guarantee productivity.  “Will some die?  They will die.  I am sorry, that’s life”, he said recently.  The capitalist system is based on the unequal distribution of the opportunity to live and die, claims Mbembe.  The logic of sacrifice has always been at the heart of neoliberalism; it has always functioned with the idea that some are worth more than others.  And who is without value can be discarded.

The democratisation of the power to kill

An interview with Achille Mbembe (Gaúchazh 31/03/2020)

Question – What are your first impressions of this pandemic?

ACHILLE MBEMBE – For the moment, I am overwhelmed by the magnitude of this calamity.  The corornavirus is truly a calamity and it raises for us a series of difficult questions.  This is a virus which affects our capacity to breath.

Q – And it obliges governments and hospitals to decide who will continue to breath.

AM – Yes.  The question is to find a way to guarantee that every individual can breathe.  This should be our political priority.  It also appears to me that our fear of isolation, of quarantine, is related to our fear of confronting our own end.  This fear has to do with our no longer being able to delegate our own death to other people.

Q – Does social isolation give us, in some way, power over death? 

AM- Yes, a relative power.  We can escape or delay death.  The containment of death is the core of the politics of confinement.  This is a power.  It is not however an absolute power as it depends on other people. 

Q – It depends on other people isolating themselves as well?

AM – Yes.  Another thing is that many of the people who have died until now had no occasion to bid farewell.  Many of them were incinerated or buried immediately, without delay; as if they were rubbish that we had to be rid of as quickly as possible.  This logic of disposal occurs precisely at a moment when we need, at least in thought, our community.  And there is no community if we cannot say goodbye to those who leave, to organise funerals.  The question is: how are communities created in a moment of calamity?

Q – What scars will the pandemic leave upon society?

AM – The pandemic will change the way in which we deal with our body.  Our body became a threat to us.  The second consequence is the transformation of the way in which we think the future, our consciousness of time.  Suddenly, we do not know how tomorrow will be.

Q – Our body is also a threat to others, if we do not stay at home.

 AM – Yes.  Now, we all possess the power to kill.  The power to kill was completely democratised.  Isolation was precisely the way to regulate this power. 

Q – Necropolitics evokes another debate, the question about what should be the political priority at this moment, to save the economy or the population.  The Brazilian government has chosen to prioritise rescuing the economy.

AM – This is the logic of sacrifice that has always been at the centre of neoliberalism, which we should call necroliberalism.  This system always functioned on the basis of an apparatus of calculation; the idea that some are worth more than others.  And who is without value can be discarded.  The question is what we do with those whom we decide to be without value.  This question of course always affects the same races, the same social classes, the same genders.     

Q – As with the HIV epidemic, in which governments delayed taking action because the victims were marginal: blacks, homosexuals, drug users?

AM – In theory, the coronavírus can kill everyone.  All are threatened.  But it is one thing to be confined to a suburb, to a second residence in the countryside.  Another thing is to be on the front lines, working in a health centre without a mask.  Risks are distributed today according to a scale.

Q – Many political leaders have referred to the fight against the coronavírus as a war.  Is the choice of the word important at this moment?  You wrote that war is a clear example of the exercise of necropolitics. 

AM – There is a difficulty in giving a name to what is taking place in the world.  It is not only a virus.  In not knowing what is to come, States everywhere have taken up the old terminology of war.  Furthermore, people are retreating back into the borders of their nation-States.

Q- Is there a greater nationalism during this pandemic?

AM – Yes.  People are returning to their “chez-soi”, as one says in French, to their home, as if dying far from home was the worst thing that could happen in a person’s life.  Borders are being closed.  I am not saying that they should stay open.  But governments respond to this pandemic with nationalist gestures, with the imaginary of the border, the wall.

Q – After the crisis, will we return to how we were before?

AM – The next time, we will be struck even more violently than we have been in this pandemic.  Humanity is at stake.  What this pandemic reveals, if we take it seriously, is that our history here on earth is not assured.  There is no guarantee that we will always be here.  The fact that it is plausible for life to continue without us is the key question of this century.    

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1 Response to Achille Mbembe: The necropolitics of a pandemic

  1. Tim says:

    Coming back to this in 2023 after all that has happened and now with the threat of more variants to come, with governments, institutions and the media doing their best to act as if the worst is over is a disturbing confirmation of Mbembe’s thesis. Now we have he disease and as well as an artificially generated silence around it, the silencing of medical experts, a cultural taboo in place to ensure there are no questions, no dissent and no recognition or acknowledgment of those who die or who lose loved ones.

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