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Biopolitics Today, Necropolitics Tomorrow


“To make live and to let die.” 

Today I’m thinking Foucault.

This is Foucault’s six word encapsulation of biopower, a power the state wields over its subjects that began to be institutionalized by the end of the eighteenth century. Now let me condense (and flatten) Foucault. My apologies, Michel.

The mass deaths involved in the urban epidemics of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries can’t be underestimated. For cities like London, city-dweller’s deaths by disease often far outpaced births. They would have shrunk without a steady flow of economic migrants replacing the dead. As powerful waves of epidemics rocked cities, many questioned the role of city governments. If these administrations couldn’t prevent the mass deaths of its citizens, what exactly was its purpose? Gradually, government responded by seizing new powers and developing new institutions to count, track, and, when necessary, control the location and activities of people’s bodies. Ordinarily, people did not necessarily want to be quantified and controlled. Crises created by plagues were an exception and so plagues became a laboratory to test forms of governmentality such as the mandatory quarantine, which at its crudest level meant shutting plague victims up in their homes to most likely die where they wouldn’t spread further infection. As Foucault puts it, “[Plague] as a form, at once real and imaginary, of disorder which had as its medical and political correlative discipline.” From the quarantine, discipline. Let die. Locked in one’s own house as the plague does its incurable work.

It’s March 21st, 2020 at 9:24 a.m and my neighbors have stopped screaming at each other. The Governor has ordered the state, essentially, to shut down on Sunday. On my writing desk is a small box. In the box are two plastic bottles that I keep forgetting to fill and send to the state so they can test our water for lead. Buffalo’s toxic water is a real but diffuse problem. It’s unseeable, sickens only some people, unevenly, and slowly, and is the consequence of decade of neglect and disavowal. It’s no Flint, which hasn’t had clean water for six years, whose problem is exponentially worse and the result of both systemic neglect of the health of black, brown, and poor people as well as the ongoing malfeasance of individual state officials i.e. some assholes decided it was okay to to switch the city to the poison waters of the Flint River to save money then stuck their head in the ground when it didn’t work. Other local and state governmental assholes joined them in ignoring the problem.

In 2020, many of the infrastructures that sustain life, having been unraveled for decades by neoliberal programs, are now so compromised that they are doing the opposite–killing residents, shifting the burden onto individuals at the mercy of the private market. Buying a lifetime of bottles of water or expensive filtration systems. Having to buy your own masks, disinfectant, space away from other people. Some things one can’t afford. Some things the market doesn’t provide.

The little testing bottles sit by my right hand, and I do not know if I even want to know. I do not want to live my life in 24 packs of bottled water. I may not be able to afford one of those cool, tall, steel filtration systems. Fortunately, I do have masks. My aging mother got together with her sisters, returned to their working class routes and pumped out nearly a thousand in a month for healthcare providers in Maryland and Buffalo. To be clear, my mother does not want to become a mask factory; she, just a person, does not want to bear the cost of her and her community’s health. She shouldn’t have to.  Combine this with the drive to force people back to work in unsafe workplaces then we have shifted from a biopolitical state to a necropolitical state: one that lets people live (if they have the resources) and makes other people die (through compulsory, unsafe work).

Last night I found out a friend of mine most likely got the coronavirus at her grocery store. But that she was on the upswing. Today, Cheryl and I talked to her husband on the phone. He said he was sick with it and was having trouble breathing. When he said this, we told him we could talk some other time if it was difficult. No, he said, he was sick of playing computer games and wanted to talk. 

Neither of them could verify if what they had was the coronavirus. The county was short on tests.

I open a new browser tab, go to a news cite, and click on the coronavirus thread. In a moment, there are eight new updates in a red bubble.

The story that got traded back and forth between my wife and I and the people we are texting, calling, and video-conferencing with is this: that doctors in Italy are developing new criteria for which patients to devote their dwindling resources to and which they are least likely to save.

Biopolitics: let die. Necropolitics: make die. 

[I think I’ll turn to necropolitics more fully, if there’s time.]

[I should also say I’m having some VERY POLITICAL THOUGHTS RIGHT NOW. Those will feed in eventually. I find myself needing to take my time with this writing, whatever it is.]

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About the Author

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Joe Hall is the author of five books of poetry, including Someone's Utopia (2018) and Fugue & Strike (forthcoming). His poems, reviews, and scholarship have appeared in Poetry Daily, The Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day, Postcolonial Studies, Peach Mag,, PEN America Blog, Poetry Northwest, Ethel Zine, Gulf Coast, Best Buds! Collective, and Eighteenth-Century Fiction. He has taught poetry workshops for teachers, teens, and workers through Just Buffalo and the WNYCOSH Worker Center.

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