Between Life and Death: On Biopolitics, Necropolitics and other Contemporary Crises

by Antonella Patteri, MPhil Politics, Birkbeck

On the 29th of January 2018, Birkbeck Institute for Social Research (BISR) hosted a one-day conference on “Necropolitics, Biopower and the Crisis of Globalisation”. The event, organised by Prof Giuseppe Cocco (Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro and Birkbeck, University of London), and by Dr Raluca Soreanu (Birkbeck, University of London), focused on the ways through which power and death are being incorporated within strategies of governance.

Biopolitics and Necropolitics, understood as two different variants of power that respectively aim at the flourishing of life (its opposite, thanatopolitics, is the ‘letting die’ of the Foucauldian’s formulae) and at its subjugation to the point of death, have been considered within a broader crisis of governance that we seem to be experiencing in our present times. Caught up between more complex issues, political power is increasingly being re-oriented towards its deadly ends. As Dr Soreanu eloquently explained, such derives of power reconfigure politics in terms of ‘hyperpolitics’ where the difference between life and death is blurred within a framework that drives on their very indistinguishability. This catastrophic incorporation of violence for the life and death of the subject results in a politics of excesses that creates an ‘everywhere’ space of possibility for violence. This has been complemented by Prof Cocco’s argument on the need to go to the roots of the problem and understand how the tension between life and death is produced and systemically maintained through the figure of the poor.

The idea that power politics is also a ‘function of death’ has been furtherly examined during the day through a series of panels on Necropolitics and the State of Exception, Monsters: Between Biopolitics and Necropolitics and Mobilisation and Necropolitics. In particular, Prof Miguel Mellino (Universita’ l’Orientale di Napoli) stressed the importance of looking at racism to better understand the ways through which social relations are first segmented, hierarchized and then filtered within a framework of uneven legitimacy. By interrogating the effects of the European Union management of migration, Prof Mellino called for the need to look more in depth at the emergence of a new moral economy of the refugee crisis. As he suggested, in fact, if we want to grasp today’s deadly dynamics of power the ‘negative’ governance of migratory fluxes has to be taken into account. Such dynamics have been also explored by Dr Silvia Posocco (Birkbeck, University of London) who looked at the case of Guatemala by paying attention to the queer population subjected to death.

The last panel of the conference was particularly interesting as it focused on the different crises of legitimacy that are dismantling our understanding of politics and the world more in general. Specifically, Dr Paolo Gerbaudo (King’s College London) talked of the consequences of living in a populist era that is changing the space and contents of politics. Trump, Brexit, and the rise of nationalist parties in Europe, are all manifestations of a political and civic loss of shared directions: taking back control from who and for what reason? This seems to be the volatile politics of our post-truth societies where ‘enemies’ appear and disappear to temporarily validate policies, narratives and discourses.

At the end of the conference I kept asking myself this question: Once death has become part of a way of governing life, both through the spectacular and the everyday political realm of it, how can we reorganise our existence beyond it? This seems a very difficult question to answer for the simple fact that changing our reality is today less ideologically sustainable than in the past. While during the conference the ghost of Karl Marx materialised through discussions on revolution and re-appropriation, what is certain is that rationalities of governance that deploy death as a means of life rely on a different kind of activism than the one that informed the necessary ‘emancipation’ of a working-class society. While mobilisations against necropower are now more visible than before, its effects are normalised as a necessary outcome for the safety of qualified lives. Such normalisation reduces our engagement in a life in death politics of change, making us feel that there is not a ‘beyond’ but only a ‘within’ death. Arguably, it is the political necessity of confronting the injustice of uneven death, where worthy and unworthy lives coexist within political morals, that will qualify the politics to come for the lives that it will not take.

This blog post is contributed by Antonella Patteri, an MPhil student in Birkbeck’s Department of Politics and Research Student Representative for the School of Social Sciences, History and Philosophy.


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