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  • Necropolitics Enfleshed
  • Christopher Breu (bio)
Review of Achille Mbembe, Necropolitics (Durham: Duke UP, 2019), 224 pp.

Achille Mbembe's Necropolitics fulfills the promise of his generative and celebrated essay on the subject. While Mbembe has written multiple books and made a number of crucial theoretical interventions, had he done nothing other than write the "Necropolitics" essay, his place in the pantheon of important contemporary theorists would be guaranteed. Building off the insights of both Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben and paralleling the contemporaneous arguments of Roberto Esposito in Bíos, Mbembe's essay advanced two intertwined and crucial insights (even as he shares with Agamben and Esposito a creative, and generative, misreading of Foucault). The first insight is that Foucault's account of biopower and biopolitics as fundamentally positive (as forms of power organized around producing and intensifying rather than negating or constraining), while representing a crucial theoretical advance, is incomplete without a coinciding theory of negative power. Foucault's account of positive power works only for global spaces and contexts in which relatively soft and subtle forms of power prevail. As Foucault himself notes, it is only when life itself in the aggregate comes under the management of political and economic power that something like a positive biopolitics can be theorized. What Mbembe adds to this framework is the argument that such forms of positive power are necessarily predicated on other more resolutely negative and explicitly violent forms of power. In this his work parallels the arguments advanced by both Agamben and Esposito, but in a context that adds force to their more Eurocentric and abstractly philosophical formulations.

This context is nothing short of the history of colonialism itself and its continued functioning in the context of neo-imperialism. Mbembe's emphasis on the history of imperialism and colonialism in relationship to biopower and its inexorable double, necropower, is the other great insight of his original essay. It has been a long-standing criticism of Foucault's theories of power that, for a theorist often writing about Europe during the age of empire, imperialism and the forms of power enshrined under settler colonialism are almost entirely neglected. Already present in the earlier essay, [End Page 505] Necropolitics theorizes colonialism as absolutely crucial to the understanding of necropolitics—and indeed biopolitics—on a global scale. The book thus elaborates and develops, if in a rather poetic and allusive way, the central insights of the essay. What emerges is a full and compelling articulation of the concept of necropolitics in relationship to the history of both modernity and our present moment. I would say that the book gives us necropolitics fully clothed, but the book is often about those who are rendered less than fully clothed (if clothing is a mark of and metaphor for livable wages, human rights, and claims on citizenship) by the violence of capitalism, war, racism, and imperialism, so I will say instead it gives us necropolitics fully enfleshed.

Central to the book's argument is the impossibility of theorizing the positive versions of biopolitics centered in Europe and the U.S. and central to the whole project of the Enlightenment and the (long and uneven) production of Western democracies more generally without theorizing the their dependence on the necropolitical violence and forms of extraction and appropriation that were central to European imperialism and continue to contemporary forms of neo-imperialism:

From the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries, these two [colonization and the slave trade] modalities of populating the planet through human predation, natural wealth extraction and setting subaltern groups to work constituted the major economic, political, and in many respects, philosophical stakes of the period. Economic theory and the theory of democracy alike were built partly on the defense or critique of one or other of these forms of spatial redistribution of populations.


Slavery, settler colonialism, and capitalist forms of extraction thus are the necessary flipside and supplement (in a Derridian sense) to the various forms of freedom and equality imagined by Enlightenment projects democracy and civil society. While Agamben and Esposito posited the concentration camp and the genocide produced by the Holocaust as the central negative inversion of biopolitics, Mbembe rethinks the violence of the...


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pp. 505-508
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