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Unpacking Necropolitics: How the Social and Political Calculations of Death Shape our World

This article was originally published in the United Nations, NewSpecial Magazine in their May 2023 issue. You can read the full magazine here.


You're stuck on a deserted island with five other people who have vibrant careers and lives. They include a carpenter, a doctor, a child, a bartender, an electrician and a gardener. Alas, a ship has come to rescue you but only holds five people. Someone must be left behind, and you have to decide who. 

These types of riddles plague philosophy students worldwide, but this scenario is a perfect example to demonstrate how necropolitics works. You have a decision to make, and it will impact a person's life. What criteria will you use to decide?

It’s an innocent thought experiment, but at a global scale, we see necropolitics in government and political decisions worldwide. Necropolitics determines not just how people live and die, but who gets to live. By extension, necropolitics determines how to view some deaths as necessary and productive. 

Necropolitics incorporates the Greek word "Nekros" meaning corpse and translates to the politics of death. Philosopher Achille Mbembe introduced the term in his 2003 publication, Necropolitics. In it, he describes necropolitics as the "subjugation of life to the power of death," where those who are subjected to death have it forced upon them. This term grew and was influenced by Michel Foucault's earlier concepts of biopower and biopolitics, which can be summarized as using social and political power to control people's lives.

The main outcome of necropolitics is to exert control over people's lives and the conditions under which people live life. It determines whose lives are most worthy to be lived – and, similarly, whose lives are not. This unveils an uncomfortable truth; some lives are considered discardable for some arbitrarily decided greater good. This can be seen in many parts of society and politics.

During the pandemic, disadvantaged communities particularly suffered, and in the United States, we heard politicians advocate for the sacrifice of the elderly for the benefit of the economy. We often see necropolitics at play during war and conflict, where the lives lost are tallied up and attributed to the “cost of freedom”. If we look carefully, we even see how necropolitics negatively impacts our progress in the fight against climate change. Necropolitics shines an intentional light on these inequities, and the associated hurdles to sustainable development.

Photo Licensed from Envato.

Necropolitics is relevant beyond wartime

Throughout history, mere existence has been justification enough for some subjugated groups to be killed. If those groups were seen to oppose a goal or stand in the way of “meaningful progress,” their deaths were often categorized as “collateral damage.” This choice of language has been seen in propaganda, often mentioned in times of war, and eventually results in the idea that some people may have to die in order to achieve an abstract societal good.

This also applies outside of war, though. Necropolitics affects the lives of civilians in non-conflict environments, also. One example is the recent train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.

On February 3rd, 2023, a 38-car train derailment resulted in toxic substances spilling into the environment and later being burned into the air. It’s been estimated that over 40,000 animals of various species have died in the area near the crash site. Some have even reported dead animals as far as 30km away. Despite an evacuation order being lifted just five days after the crash and state and federal authorities insisting that residents would be safe to return home, residents and health investigators continue to fall ill.

This event could be analyzed ad nauseam, but Nina Turner a professor and former Ohio state senator, underscores how necropolitics plays a role in the situation. “If there were toxic chemicals being released in a wealthy suburban area, there would be outrage.” For context, the average household income in East Palestine, OH is approximately 40% lower than the average American household.

In 2022, the world watched Lionel Messi win a World Cup in the fabulous stadiums in Qatar. In the backdrop, however, were the approximately 6500 migrant workers who died between 2011 and 2020 to build those same facilities.

Despite ongoing concerns for a decade, limited improvements were made to create safer workplaces. Workers continued to experience nationality-based discrimination, abuse, unpaid wages, and other labour violations. Through all these violations, FIFA continued to generate a profit, with little to no ramifications for authorities in Qatar or FIFA itself. This creates the impression that the deaths of 6,500 individuals are deemed acceptable in exchange for a 28-day World Cup event.

The Price (of Life) is Not Right 

At the time of this writing, the United States is grieving the deaths of 6 innocent people in a school shooting at the end of March, and wall-to-wall coverage has dominated the airwaves during this time. This was the 129th mass shooting in the United States in 2023. Just a few weeks earlier, 7 mushroom farmers were killed in a mass shooting in Northern California with little to no such news coverage.

Quietly but surely, we have assigned a price to the lives of specific people. The health systems of countries worldwide serve as a litmus test to necropolitics in action. Maternal mortality statistics, often an indicator of health inequities, show that high-income countries have lower maternal mortality than low-income countries. In the European Union, except for Norway, women born abroad or belonging to a minority group had maternal mortality rates 50% higher than the national average. While the discussion is nuanced, it is important: as a theme around the world, there are certain people whose lives are deemed more valueable.

And, of course, necropolitics is inextricably and most obviously linked to military conflicts and war. In 2020, over 80 million people were pushed into poverty, and 55 million people were forced to move within their country due to extreme weather events such as storms, floods, and other climate disasters. Meanwhile, global military budgets increased, on average, by just under 3 percent. The mere fact that invasions and wars occur incorporates an equation that estimates that the lost lives will be worth the perceived outcome. Sadly, this results in the deaths of countless individuals, impacts global health and environmental wellness, and creates further tensions between nations that prevent the development of a peaceful human race. Dr. Carlo Rovelli and Matteo Smerlak have written extensively on the social development we could achieve if even small percentages of military spending were reallocated to healthcare, climate, and education

How to mitigate the impacts of necropolitics 

Necropolitics is how power and control dictate the lives and deaths of people worldwide. As we contemplate the UN Sustainable Development Goals, we examine ways in which life can be made more equitable for all people. Missing from the discussion is how we can make death more equitable globally. At first glance, improving life and improving death seem at odds with one another.

But organizations like Philotimo Life advocate that we can design a more compassionate world by starting with the self. By incorporating age-appropriate elements of death and grief literacy into our education systems and workplaces, we can make meaningful progress at designing societies and a world that work against the current structures of necropolitics. 

As grief is a universal emotion. Incorporating grief education into our childhood and adult education systems prepares future leaders to consider the preciousness of human life and how their actions impact others.

As we are often distracted by the shining, sparkling objects that fill our days and consume our lives, we rarely contemplate our own mortality. There is the idea that being reminded of our mortality is counterintuitive to embracing and treasuring life. But it actually helps ease any death anxiety or uncertainty we experience. Similar to how we deeply appreciate sunny days much more after experiencing long, dark winters, we’ll appreciate life much more when we better understand and acknowledge our mortality.

When we lean into an understanding of death and grief literacy, we are able to fundamentally shift the way we view death and dying. When this is done, we begin to recognize that death is a reality for everyone, and we allow ourselves to value each individual life. As we enhance our own personal understanding, we also allow ourselves to better foster a compassionate and kind society that supports each other through our heartaches, grief, and loss, while ensuring all lives are appreciated and valued. 

When we fundamentally change how we view death and dying, we will fundamentally change how we view life and change the way we choose to live.

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