This unit on necropower studies four basic themes: death being confounded with life; living death being created in both abject and alluring forms; the paradox of destruction of life in defence of life; and finally, the idea that work is death and all life has been subsumed into work. Along with Mbembe’s standard designation of necropower (that death as a technology of power has been redistributed and enhanced, rather than retired/replaced) the unit studies what it will posit are the three great necropolitical imaginaries that largely inform the thinking of modern liberal democracies: the will to undeath/unpower (delight in continuing the Socratic war against life), the will to unfreedom/false egoism (delight in tutelage to the dead), and the will to death/regression (delight in destruction of life/the planet). In the first, one is masochistically devoted to care (self harm is better than other harm); in the second, one is sadistically devoted to preservation (other harm is better than self/kin harm), and in the third, one is suicidally devoted to non-repression (one commits oneself to the destruction of imaginary threats to one’s existence in such a manner that the other and the self will surely die).
Alongside the usual work of necropolitical theory (critiquing power for creating zones of exception in which vulnerable people are dehumanised and have a much greater likelihood of ‘accidental’ death) this unit will examine Nietzsche’s claim that egalitarian liberalism (as the will to undeath mentioned above) is the apotheosis of necropolitics, and a genuine attempt to govern without violence, i.e., a significant necropolitcs of care is possible, one that finds killing repugnant. Growing public acceptance of the need to exclude or annihilate threats to a pure host culture is not, for Nietzsche, the latent or submerged violence of democracy rising to the top, it is rather a more patient and refined necropolitics (one actually invested in peace and non-violence) being challenged by a different, primitive, and less sublimated necropolitics (the indirect and highly painted violences of masochistic civilisation being rejected in favour of more convulsive, sadistic forms). That young modernity was brutal does not necessarily mean that democratic and liberal ideas have always had love of the power of death within them. We will examine this claim (and agree for much of the unit), but we will also entertain the Nietzschean thesis (that modernity is/was at heart a project of human domestication). For Nietzsche, though this proposition will give us trouble, it is ultimately not problematic to imagine that horrible atrocities could be a vital part of what is still a pacification process (though the hunger for them today suggests that this process has been disrupted).
If the Nietzschean claim is viable, politics in the Global North can largely be viewed as a battle between two highly attractive death cults: a cult of love and anti-retribution, and a cult of hate and enemy obsession. The first will be designated the will to undeath qua neo-Christianity (the fight against human beings being reduced to mere means/exploited/harmed/discriminated against, which is to say, liberalism concerned with the dignity of human life as well as its management), and the second the will to unfreedom qua neo-fascism (the primacy of free individuals along racialised/nationalistic lines, which is to say, ostensibly ‘legitimate’ conservatism that is more than ever a war on the poor, foreigners, etc.). The revolutionary cult of hate has been making progress since the 1980s, especially as regards to resignifying civilisation as ‘naturally’ being a brutal place of competition, rather than a space in which we ought to cooperate, but within this group the third voice howls, the unrefined will to death that demands absolute desublimation: usually into pure fascism (constant informal sanctions and microaggressions against the foreign, women, the differently able, coupled with limited use of camp logic, not being enough for them), total environmental destruction (again, semi-controlled destruction is not enough for them), or handing all power to capital without reservation (the fake ‘spontaneous order’ of the neoliberals is viewed, with partial insight, as a hidden rule of elites), so that those who fought for a somewhat less Christian/stifling/caring civilisation (missing the joys of killing some enemies) now have to deal with supporters who like this project far too much and who will accept nothing less than the full reinstatement of what they imagine to be the state of nature (falsely imagining that ‘freedom’ and ‘individuality’ are gifts of nature and not of Christian necropolitics/power). Or as Mbembe puts it: some want back some will to power by becoming half cruel and half virtuous, but the justifications for this (that the dominant are not dominant, but are rather in danger/disappearing/being ‘diluted’/contaminated/exterminated) are simply too well believed, and create a demand in some for more and greater pre-emptive/protective cruelty, ostensibly suspending the law to preserve the law, but in reality suspending the law because it is a hated barrier to dark gratifications.
The course studies alternate explanations as to why and how we might have become undead, from Christianity via Nietzsche to capitalism via Marx, and attempts to chart routes of escape back to life, beyond the necrotic choices that are ready-to-hand (capitalism to socialism/neo-Christianity; slave morality to anti-liberalism/neo-fascism). Those who fight for social justice will not be accustomed to entertaining the idea that they are super-Christian death cultists, just as Christian-identifying neoliberals and libertarians will be confused at best at the thought that atheistic socialism as it is usually conceived today is little but the word of Christ purified by being untethered from the Church. However, this idea will be presented and interrogated, as a part of a study of necropolitics that wishes to go beyond what is obviously necropolitical: Putin’s war, boat turnbacks, etc., and obviously necrocultural: love of guns, climate denial, eating your dead God and drinking his blood, device addiction, etc. The obvious necropolitical work is essential, and we will study the death-worlds where the young and healthy routinely wither and die, and where most talk is of death and being already dead, for example the ‘processing facilities’ for asylum seekers. But the dead bury the living in manifold ways. For both Marx and Nietzsche, in very different ways, the concept of equality is not the shovel we ought to use to free ourselves, and so we ought to consider that the primary alterative to cruel and obvious necropolitics today is a counter necropolitics of love: the old and slow burning version that for Nietzsche begins with Socrates, becomes Christianity, and is finally perfected as secular liberalism or socialism, wherever there is a call for ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’.
The course is animated by an argument between Nietzsche and Mbembe: for Nietzsche, humanism is fundamentally evil because at its core it is ‘good’: it wants to ‘improve’ (read domesticate) humankind; for Mbembe, humanism cannot but be evil because the human is always white, but cannot be the One without the other who is made to suffer every brutality she is imagined to desire to inflict upon the white. Depending on who is correct, liberal democracy is either showing the hidden face that has been there all along (as rages towards being in no way liberal or democratic), or, it is ‘good’, is/was heading towards a world of loving the enemy, and is being torn down by enemies of civilisation for that reason, i.e., recent history and the turn towards hate and enmity within ostensibly humanist nations is a nightmare version of Nietzsche’s transvaluation of values rather than democracy ‘becoming what it is’: not a showing of the necropolitical face on the other side of the humanist face, but a radical desublimation of the general necropolitics of civilisation, so that it can be said that civilisation is not proving that enlightenment is cursed by regression but is rather being usurped (though in a highly contested manner) by forces of anti-civilisation. It is commonly thought (from Weber to the Frankfurt School) that civilisation must devolve into barbarism as a matter of course. Nietzsche’s anti-thesis that civilisation will devolve into horrible peace and pathetic goodwill (if not fought by ‘free spirits’) is rarely explored: why he was mistaken deserves some meditation, especially on the question as to whether he was simply catastrophically wrong, or the more interesting thesis: that the necropolitical imaginary of slaves (the one of great love) became more vulnerable than expected as it neared success, not to ‘free spirits’, but rather to beings who like their necropolitics more bloody. Nietzsche will be to some extent brought into alignment with Mbembe via Marcuse: we can argue that it is not the case that the Sky News crowd are angry because, as they intimate, the world has gone too soft and correct. The ‘loony left’ are clearly not in power, and only make the ground they still do today because those who cathect to hate believe that they are ‘good’ also, and cannot always disagree with what is fundamentally Christian logic—though ideologically they would like to. The SNC are angry because we are allowed much violence but it is not enough for them. And because, for this kind of necropolitics, we owe those like us nothing, and those not like us have no rights and must be punished.
Part one: ‘life does not live’ (Kurnberger in Adorno).
Week one: Core concepts
This week provides the foundations for the unit. I will define biopower and necropower and then discuss the more recent roots of these concepts in alienation (Marx), the theory of the ultimate human (Nietzsche), and the death drive (Freud).
Living death will be defined as manufactured despair/dehumanisation/increased likelihood of death (Mbembe); living labour being instrumentalised into a means to serve dead labour (Marx); life in which the vital drives are prohibited and vitiated (Nietzsche); and life in which the natural drive to death casts too large a shadow on the ego (Freud). There are brutal undeaths that result from having ‘the wrong thinking’ (of terrorists); undeaths of yielding that have a semblance of human life (of the conforming, indifferent, and of the digital subject who conflates living and digital labour); unspectacular undeaths under the constant gaze of ‘active neglect’ (of the elderly, ‘low risk’ refugees, prisoners, etc.); and the undeaths of impotent and neurotic resistance that is smugly smiled at by those who are at home in the present regime of a kind of fascism that cannot possibly see itself as such. Humanity is dissolving in many ways, and bare life ‘exists’ on both sides of a razor wire fence—though it is vulgar now to suggest with Foucault that life is more bare for the coloniser ‘made to live’, it is also vulgar to assert the opposite, that those who fight camp logic have extricated themselves from power relations in the simple act of visibly demonstrating opposition. The freedom to fight is evidence of power—without it one is merely dominated.
Adorno defined progress in the 1960s as understanding that it is better and not worse if people do not fear and if there is not a total catastrophe on the horizon. Modern necropolitics thus demonstrates the opposite of progress in creating death zones of fear and despair as a normalised means of governing and in refusing to actively and directly avert the global climate crisis that is already intensifying.
The course aim is this week defined as achieving the most basic form of progress ever to be defined. The contemporary means mobilised in this aim will however be challenged for themselves engaging in counter-necropolitics instead of anti-necropolitics.
Readings: Foucault, Society Must be Defended, 17th March, 1976 (biopower lecture), and Mbembe, ‘Necropolitics’. Public Culture, Volume 15, Number 1, Winter 2003, pp. 11-40.
Weeks two and three: Nietzsche versus idealism
The following two weeks study what Nietzsche sees as a war on life and the real world. The antagonists are Socrates, Plato, Christ, Luther, and later, the ‘preachers of equality’ who inherit Socrates’ program of the war against life.
We will here ask the question what is life, and further, who hates it and why? Idealism, Christianity, liberalism, socialism, and social justice are all for Nietzsche one and the same thing: hatred of life and war against life.
The two connected lectures have three basic moments. We study the Socratic hatred of life (the drive to death or castration, i.e., life is a sickness/malady), the Platonic confusion of death and life (death is when real life begins, i.e., life is not a sickness but it is not real life), and the evolution of these ideas into modern forms (the war against life ought not kill but make undead/pacify).
Social justice politics will be presented (with a Nietzschean eye) as giving in to the allure of living death through the very act of fighting the existence of bare life, as desiring the castrated state of being ‘ultimate’: the placid unlife that follows the victory of the war against life (a world in which the weak no longer need fear the strong). Later elements of the unit will problematise Nietzsche’s critique.
Readings: Nietzsche, The Twilight of the Idols. The Problem of Socrates; ‘Reason’ in Philosophy; How the Real World at last became a myth; Morality as Anti-Nature. pp. 162-176. Nietzsche, Zarathustra’s Prologue, Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
Part two: “Society is but a contract between the dead, the living, and those yet to be born” Burke.
Week four: “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living” Marx.
This week we move from a critique of modern egalitarian or utilitarian liberalism to a critique of anti- or neoliberal capitalism. We now have a working Nietzschean understanding of liberal egalitarian politics as a war against life that takes the form of a war against power, i.e., we desire the undead state of being at peace, curing the human animal of the will to power—and in the process curing her of life.
For Marx being undead is not about being tamed, but it is rather about being unfree. We thus move from a leftist drive to pacified life to a right wing formulation: the conflation of life and service of capital/dead labour, or, in other words, the devastating signification of living death as freedom. For Marx, as this week will explore, capitalism is a situation in which dead labour contains more life than the living: people become things in the service of things animated by crystalised human activity, and this situation of servitude is designated at ‘the end of history’ as being the only possible way for human beings to exist.
Readings: Marx, Capital. ‘The Fetishism of the commodity and its secret’.
Week five: living death as human capital
It is tempting to posit that the poor are the living dead, but in The Holy Family Marx starts a line of investigation that posits that it is the bosses who are really dead, though only they have a ‘semblance of human life’. This ‘semblance of human life’, the comfort that comes when one internalises the logic of the dead, is today spreading. This week marries Marx and Adorno to ask if it is still possible to live today, to be more than a debased appendage to a means of production.
This week also adds a Nietzschean caveat: those who resist capitalism today largely do so for the wrong reasons. Those who fight from egalitarian principles do so because it harms: suffering and want are deliberate and necessary products of capitalism. We ought to consider hating it because it is living death (thingified human beings serving their own dead activity), and then we will not exit this form of living death only to leap into another (the living death of the tame last human). Egalitarian resistance also frequently misses the core point of this unit, the Foucauldian point that the most complete and insidious forms of subjugation are invisible and painless.
Readings: Marx, The Holy Family, Chapter 4. Excerpts from Adorno, Minima Moralia, dedication, 6: Antithesis, and 137: Small sorrows, great songs. pp. 15–18; 26-28; 214-215.
Extra/optional: Foucault’s The Subject and Power.
Week six: life is a rare species of death
This week returns to core concepts, looking at Nietzsche and Freud to argue that (contra Marx) life has always been living death. It expands upon the week one work on the death drive as a groundwork for the next part of the unit so that we can discuss the drive to global suicide that competes with the more patient/sublimated drives towards living death on the left and the right.
Readings: Freud, An Outline of Psychoanalysis, Chapter 2, The Theory of the Instincts. Nietzsche, The Gay Science. Sections 108 through to 153. pp. 109-132.
Part three: the joy of killing
Week seven: Marcuse versus Freud
Freud argues that civilisation requires human beings to turn their destructive instincts inward. In the state of nature human beings externalise the death drive by killing. In the state of civilisation we internalise the death drive into guilt. Marcuse counters that civilisation is about progress of the externalisation of the death drive: we kill and destroy bigger and better than ever before, and we love it (some love it enough to utterly destroy their own faculty of reason when it endangers this pleasure, e.g., still denying climate change, and capable of denying it through much worse coming catastrophes). In short, it is no accident that our means of providing food, shelter and security produce maximum devastation to life and the planet: the damage and the pleasure that it grants are the point, they have been the point of all progress, and objectively, the most progress has occurred in these fields.
This week will explicitly explore the necrotic imaginary of the will to death, the only imaginary that wants actual and not living death. Those who cathect to this imaginary will be pro-coal, anti-vaccine, pro-gun, anti-recycling, ‘tough on crime’/borders. Marcuse’s explanation here is interesting, in that it posits that it is not ignorance but gratification that drives these people, and that the pleasure gains are significant. We will return to this theme, as it is a useful counter to the liberal who thinks that more floods and droughts must convince climate deniers to change their minds. If Marcuse is right, more pain, misery, and environmental damage will only cause more pleasure, and greater attachment to the positions that grant it. The liberal is despised as the force that seeks to withdraw gratification. In a non-necropolitical world, this group, who showed its teeth when denied the maximum COVID-19 death toll, will be the biggest danger.
This week challenges Freud and Nietzsche, in that both believe that civilisation does actually close down means of aggression. Marcuse posits the opposite, creating an argument closer to Mbembe’s.
Readings: Marcuse, Eros and Civilisation, Chapter 4, pp. 78-105.
Week eight: Necropower
This week we move from the concept of death and destruction as being psychologically pleasing to the concept of these being technologies of power: we study making live, letting die, and finally, making die, through a more thorough study of Foucault and Mbembe, and a study of some continuations of Mbembe’s work such as queer necropolitics.
We attempt here to defend egalitarian liberalism from Nietzsche’s negative judgements: i.e., maybe social justice is the culmination of Christian thought and maybe it is not, but non-belief in the rightness of social justice has become unbelievable in the Global North, so that even the right of politics has to prove that ‘do gooders’ are not wrong in sentiment but only in approach, the logic-bending idea that help does not help and that only yielding power to the dead (free markets) is good for human beings.
Readings: Re-read week one reading, and Mengia Tschalae, ‘Queer Necropolitics: Experiences of LGBTQI+ Asylum Claimants During Covid-19 in the UK’. Journal of Contemporary European Research. Volume 18, Issue 1 (2022).
Part four: ‘Tell how long it is we have been dead’ (Trakl in Adorno).
Week nine: The social factory
This week begins the theme of work being death and of work becoming ‘life’ via a study of Hardt and Negri on the continuation of Marx’s concept of the real subsumption of labour under capital: in particular, the conversion of elements of life once considered to be discretionary into surplus-value producing activity.
Readings: Hardt, Michael, and Toni Negri. 2018. “The Multiplicities Within Capitalist Rule and the Articulation of Struggles.” tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique 16 (2): 440–8.
Marx, excerpts from ‘Results of the Immediate Process of Production’. pp. 980-1038.
Week ten: Digital labour
This week questions the optimism of Hardt and Negri relating to the neutrality of technology and its ability to be a means of emancipation. Following Christian Fuchs, this week argues that digital technology is the primary means of converting life into work.
Readings: Fuchs, Christian. 2010. “Labor in Informational Capitalism and on the Internet.” The Information Society: An International Journal 26 (3): 179–96.
Week eleven: Let the living bury the dead
This week contrasts Marx and Nietzsche’s respective cures for confusing death and life. They are presented as being antithetical, i.e., communism (life is freedom qua non-labour time), and the death of the slave morality that hates life (life requires salutary hardship).
Marx’s hatred of levellers and Christians will also be discussed as a means to problematise the idea that the respective critiques of living death are indeed irreconcilable, as well as discussing Nietzsche’s critique of what he calls ‘retarded’ cruelty in the modern world and his meditations on why the Superman ought not resemble the old nobility.
In short, along the lines of the imaginaries of the will to undeath and the will to unfreedom we will attempt to disengage Marx from the former (neo-Christianity) and Nietzsche from the latter (neo-fascism), bringing them together as being on the side of life, without neglecting the differences between communism and Nietzsche’s dream of an unequal world.
Readings: Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ, Preface through to para 18, pp. 3-16. Marx, Capital, Chapter 7: The labour process and the valorization process. pp. 283-306.
Week twelve: Reiteration of main themes
This week examines the four themes and three imaginaries of the unit and reiterates the major points.
In short, the impatient want to die as soon as possible, and the main resistance on the right and the left is to preach living death as unfreedom (less insane capitalism, but still organised around constant work) and living death as being cured of the will to power (humane capitalism or prosumer communism, where none exploit any other, because all strong drives have been cut off at the root).
We have been cured of too much life to properly heed Nietzsche. As Matthew Sharpe notes, we cannot ignore that fascists enjoy Nietzsche: though it may be based on a blunt, brutal, or highly selective reading, it is not an accident, and one may even hazard that a liberal needs to engage in more cherry picking than a fascist to find a kindred soul in Nietzsche. Though the fascist reading is at best incomplete, there is something repugnant in Nietzsche that attracts the fascist, and it is that our modern hatred of harm is for Nietzsche a learned weakness that we ought to excise from ourselves. This is something that we need to acknowledge and question.
But despite some valid critiques of Nietzsche, necropower as a concept is limited if it only looks at the harms in the death-worlds where the marginal are reduced to bare life and made to die. We must look there, as a part of the most basic form of progress, but we ought also to consider that we are all already dead on a sinking ship, and that is the reason those of us not infected by the direct will to death (not gleefully making new holes) are nevertheless bailing out the water so apathetically. We ought to look both at how we (privileged citizens who are made to live) create living death (zones in which the ungrievable are made to die) and how we are potentially already dead ourselves, comfortably dead, or, if you are considering this unit, perhaps stricken by ‘the shame of still having air to breathe, in hell’ (Adorno).
The question and answer period of the final week will focus on whether students found the argument for egalitarian liberalism as a competing necropolitical imaginary (necropolitical and, if not contested, actually moving towards a world in right conquers might) convincing. If so, the question is whether it is a lesser evil (if Nietzsche’s fears about the end of human evolution can conscionably be weighed against the definitive end of camp logic), and if anti-necropolitical imaginaries are a) possible, and b) psychically attractive enough to garner enough widespread libidinal attachment to compensate for the enjoyments that will be lost. The questions also asked whether the age of convincing people with ‘evidence’ is over, and the morality of creating an anti-necropolitical hegemony, given that many will not give up on the pleasure of the wills to death, undeath and unfreedom willingly, especially given that a perverse will to power is attached to the will to death: will to power, insofar as a puny person can feel involved in something so grandiose as the death of a planet, perverse, insofar as the will to power (though not afraid of death) is meant to give meaning to the earth, give meaning to life, and cause life to lighten and ascend.
Readings: Matthew Sharpe. ‘Unifying, Comparative, Critical and Metacritical: Domenico Losurdo’s Nietzsche as Aristocratic Rebel’. Critical Horizons. 2022, VOL. 23, NO. 3, 284–304.