Brazil’s and the United States’ response to the pandemic may offer a hint of a future in which a system that is viable for the majority of the world’s population is not the goal.

What possible future does the disastrous response to the COVID-19 pandemic by Brazil and the United States point towards? And how can the answer to this question shed light on the concept of “necropolitics,” which has recently become a popular way of describing Jair Bolsonaro’s government?

Although the term “necropolitics” was coined by Achille Mbembe only in 2003, the reality to which it refers is much older. The idea, on the other hand, was already implicit in the concept of biopolitics since its emergence in the early 20th century, long before it was (re)discovered by Michel Foucault. Conceived by authors such as Rudolph Kjellén, Jakob von Uexküll and Morley Roberts out of an analogy between the nation-state and the organism, biopolitics has always assumed a border between the political body to be cared for and an external environment inhabited by resources and threats. This border may coincide with the limits of the nation-state, thus referring to international competition and colonialism; or it may cut across it internally, separating populations that the authorities must make live from those that they can let die or eventually kill. The latter are like the pathogenic agents that threaten or debilitate the body of the nation: “degenerates,” political and religious dissidents, ethnic groups, immigrants, the poor, criminals, the insane, the disabled, outcasts – categories that obviously intersect in various ways.

Drawing attention to this allows us to highlight an aspect that sometimes gets lost when the concept is used to talk about the Bolsonaro administration. Namely, that necropolitics is not a deviation, a perversion or a mysterious “death cult,” but has always existed between the lines, or rather, at the borders between different populations and territories. In other words, what differentiates Bolsonaro’s administration is not the existence of a necropolitical component, given that one has always been present, but the fact that it is expressed more intensely and openly. In short, the difference is in degree, not in kind.

Necropolitics in the head

Although many have tried to downplay it as mere rhetorical excess, this necropolitical tenor was already perfectly transparent before the election. While Bolsonaro threatened to “mow down” enemies, his allies competed to see who could more explicitly promise to one part of the population that another part would be treated as killable – “aiming at the little heads” of criminals, as the governor of Rio de Janeiro put it in his campaign, while obviously accepting the risk of hitting innocents. Even if it were pure rhetoric, it is evident that this discourse, coming as it did from the mouths of leaders sanctioned by the ballot, would produce fatal effects, since it signaled to law enforcement agents the willingness not to curb excesses. Alongside other deliberate measures, it led to a 92% increase in deaths in police operations in 2019 in Rio de Janeiro alone. In São Paulo, the period from January to April 2020 saw a 60% increase in deaths caused by the military police. While figures in São Paulo have taken a drop after the recent introduction of cameras in police uniforms, they have continued to rise elsewhere: in Rio, almost four people were killed by police every 24h in 2021.

Perhaps we could summarize the mixture of conservatism and savagery that is characteristic of Bolsonarismo as the transformation of the notion of the “upstanding citizen” into a biopolitical category. In Bolsonarista discourse, the “upstanding citizen” openly functions as a criterion of demarcation between the population whose life must be protected and the population which not only can be allowed to die but one should ultimately have the right to kill. This right is not only to be liberally exercised by the state, but should also be devolved to those whose lives are worth protecting: the government’s obsession with changing gun laws so that “upstanding citizens can protect themselves” amounts to nothing more than the privatization of sovereign power over death.

What the COVID-19 pandemic made clear, however, is that the biopolitical frontier can never be only moral. Although the virus kills poor and non-white people in a much greater proportion, it is indifferent to matters of social mores, and has of course claimed the lives of many an “upstanding citizen.” In the election, it was promised that only those who “deserved it” would be in danger. Now, the risk is everyone’s, and it is income that offers the best protection. This points to another aspect of necropolitics that is obscured if we treat it as some kind of extraordinary preference for death on the part of rulers.

While it is true that the Nazi’s biologization of the necropolitical border is unique, biopolitics has always supposed the idea that for some to live and prosper, the lives of others must be rendered expendable.

What does it mean to say that necropolitics has always been the flipside of biopolitics? The conversion of one into the other hinges, as we saw above, on a matter of borders –– or more precisely, the border between protected and expendable life. From this, it is easy to see the two realities are intertwined with the expansion of capitalism in the 19th century. Conceived as an organism, a population has basically two tendencies: the conservation of its vital forces and growth. These two biopolitical goals determine, by contrast, the forms that necropolitics can take. The tendency to grow makes into a potentially killable target anyone who prevents the increase of the nation’s “vital space” (Lebensraum), to borrow the term coined by Kjellén’s professor Friedrich Ratzel, which served as justification for the imperial pretensions of Nazism. In turn, the defense of the social body against “pathogens” such as criminals, “inferior races,” etc., leads to spatial segregation, police violence, and, ultimately, to what Foucault described as “state racism”: medicalization of difference, eugenics, and extermination camps. But conservation and growth come together in a third alternative. Feeding and strengthening the nation implies continuously supplying it with cheap raw materials and workforce – cheap nature and cheap labor, as Jason W. Moore put it. Externally, through the spoliation of colonies and “emerging markets” or the enslavement of other peoples; internally, through the exploitation of natural resources and labor.

This shows why a government like Bolsonaro’s is less an exception than the radicalization of a norm, and why focusing on Nazism as the paradigmatic case of the transformation of bio- into necropolitics – a trope that runs from Foucault to Esposito via Agamben – can be misleading. While it is true that the Nazi’s biologization of the necropolitical border is unique, biopolitics has always supposed the idea that for some to live and prosper, the lives of others must be rendered expendable. The poor – and, in places like Brazil and the United States, even more so Black people, whose ancestors’ legal status was not that of persons but of property – thus live permanently on the border between protected and disposable life. More protected when things are going well, they become expendable when things go badly. At such times, the criterion that separates bio- from necropolitics is fundamentally economic.

The pandemic, of course, is such a time.

Your money or your life

When Brazil reached the milestone of 10,000 official victims of the pandemic, Bolsonaro addressed the deaths for the first time to say that, while regretting them, he needed to “set an example” by controlling expenses and prioritizing the economy. When defending the reopening of commerce even as the number of cases continued to climb, the lieutenant governor of Texas summed up the situation in crystal clear terms. According to him, “there are more important things than living;” namely working, consuming, and keeping the gears turning.

This way of framing the situation – as a choice between life and the economy – relied on a lie and a triple concealment. The lie resides in the notion that, in a highly integrated world market, any particular place can avoid the effects of a sharp slowdown in the global economy and accompanying recession; as if by keeping the mall open one can offset logistical slowdown or the fall in demand for commodities, for example. Bolsonaro’s choice was not technical, but ideological and electoral, shifting blame for an inevitable economic crisis onto governors and mayors who wished to observe sanitary measures, or whomever acted responsibly from a public health standpoint. Instead of protecting the economy at the expense of life, this approach turned out disastrous for both: not making any effort to flatten the curve meant living much longer with intense disruption, at a huge cost in both lives and money.

To paint this strategy of committing suicide with the lives of others as reasonable, it is first necessary to conceal the seriousness of the crisis, presenting it as a minor hiccup that will be overcome quickly. But this concealment is at the service of another one, which is of an ideological nature. It is the latter that sets the stage in which politicians can reduce our options to an inevitable choice between dying from the virus or from starvation.

The reason why many people could hear this message and agree with it was that, for them, the inevitability was real: inequality makes quarantine an unattainable luxury. By putting the situation in these terms, therefore, people like Bolsonaro and Trump could be seen as being less hypocritical than those who urged people to stay at home when they needed to go out to earn a living. This is the perfect example of what Isabelle Stengers and Philippe Pignarre call “infernal alternatives”: those situations in which the objective distribution of incentives and opportunities reduces “freedom” to a choice between equally bad options. This conceals the fact that there could be alternatives to the bad alternative, or possibilities that would make a terrible choice avoidable. In the case of COVID, those would involve massive state action to secure income and employment until the pandemic is brought under control.

But it is precisely this kind of option that, for ideological reasons, leaders like Bolsonaro resisted even considering: to do so would imply publicly admitting that there was another way out of the crisis. Besides, to implement such measures would risk awakening demands for new rights – such as a universal basic income – instead of resigned passivity in the face of yet another dose of austerity. This is the third concealment.

Under normal conditions, a government that disregarded the mass death of its population would never be reelected.

But this is also where the singularity of the present moment comes in. If even right-wing governments around the world have agreed to intervene substantially, it is because the crisis is not only economic but also sanitary. Refusing to intervene in these circumstances would amount to washing one’s hands of a danger that threatens both the most disposable and the most protected lives. The political cost of doing so is too high, since it means publicly evading the state’s duty to protect life or, in other words, breaking the biopolitical pact: the tacit agreement, essential to modern political communities, according to which governments take charge of making their subjects live in exchange for potentializing their economic utility. Under normal conditions, a government that disregarded the mass death of its population would never be reelected.

That is why we must pay attention to what has happened in places like Brazil and the United States: they were social experiments with important implications. In two of the largest Western democracies, in the midst of the greatest health crisis in a century, two governments openly shirked their responsibility to protect life in the name of economic utility. Even more remarkable, doing so not only did not cost them dearly in terms of popularity (at least not initially), but also did not prevent them from retaining a highly committed social base they could mobilize against science, protective measures such as masks and social distancing, and even health professionals.

The future is not what it used to be

It is no coincidence that we are talking about two countries built on Indigenous genocide and slavery, historical wounds whose legacy is the normalization of human suffering. But if the gravity of what is happening attracts less attention than it should, it is also because the idea that we must suffer for the economy is already widely naturalized.

When Michel Foucault called liberalism “the general framework of biopolitics”, what he meant by that was that the management of the population’s conditions of life by the state was based on cost-benefit analysis whose success or failure is verified in the last instance by the market. What he failed to appreciate at the time was that there is an asymmetry between these two elements. Whereas there is no intrinsic criterion or limit to the greatest benefit state action could have, one for the lowest cost exists: it is zero. By systematically measuring the greatest benefit according to a standard in which zero cost is tendentially the goal, neoliberalism has habituated us over the course of four decades to the notion that the ideal kind of public intervention would be, by definition, the one that costs absolutely nothing – that is, no intervention at all. With that, it has normalized a progressive shrinking of the circle of protected life, the historical expansion of which reached a high global watermark in the decades after World War Two and has been continuously reversed since.

The construction of a desert. An image from Marina Camargo’s Lost Continent.

That normalization also works in other ways. Since the beginning of its historical rise, when it presented itself as an antidote to the “excesses” of the welfare state, neoliberalism has articulated its program of reformatting the state and society in terms of an individualistic moral grammar in which the idea of merit (“it is up to you”) was combined with that of sacrifice (“you have to tighten your belt”). The constant repetition of this discourse, as well as decades of lived experience within institutions and social relations radically reconfigured by it, served to internalize its logic, making it almost second nature. Within this echo chamber, private debt and economic crises themselves function as disciplinary devices that simultaneously increase the economic coercion to which individuals are subjected and reactivate the imaginary of individual responsibility, guilt, and atonement. These can continue to work, and indeed become increasingly punitive, even as the carrot held in front of people’s eyes recedes into the horizon: if in previous times sacrifice was demanded in the name of individual success or a better life, now one is required to risk death just so the economy will live. As the promises disappear, all that is left is the imperative to continue subjecting oneself to circumstances, adapting to a horizon of diminishing expectations.

Since 2008, the capitalist system has existed in an eternal present devoid of futurity. The economic dynamism of the last decade, which culminated in November 2019 with the celebration of ten years of uninterrupted stock market growth and a resounding 468% gain for companies listed on the S&P 500 – the longest bull market in history – was achieved at the cost of injecting more than $10 trillion of public money into the international financial system between 2008 and the beginning of this year. This type of intervention, known as Quantitative Easing, was on the rise again even before the pandemic, leading observers to wonder whether it had become a permanent feature of the world economy. Since this bonanza was accompanied by very few requirements to invest in the production of goods and services, most of this money circulated only in the financial sector. The result was an asset inflation that left speculators richer, but the real economy adrift. After an inevitable uptick right after the Great Recession, the global GDP growth rate fell again and never regained its pre-2008 vigor, continuing instead on the downward trajectory that began in 1973. Productivity, usually the best indicator of long-term economic growth, has continued to measure poorly worldwide. In the United Kingdom, its increase was the lowest since the early 19th century; in China, half of what it had been in the previous decade.

Whatever the explanation that is offered – “secular stagnation,” “rentier capitalism,” a “long decline” due to industrial overcapacity – it is increasingly clear that we live in an era of instability, “weakened competition, feeble productivity growth, high inequality and, not coincidentally, an increasingly degraded democracy.” In this context, austerity definitively loses any justification as a means to an end and becomes an end in itself. Instead of the necessary sacrifice to create conditions conducive to the resumption of economic activity, it becomes manifest as a disciplinary device, an instrument of accumulation by predation, and a way to ensure high returns in a declining economy through the consolidation of mechanisms that produce inequality. Brazil, in fact, offers a perfect example of this dynamic. For five years now, rights and social protections have been ravaged by reforms that were supposed to create fabulous amounts of jobs and boost GDP. The fact that the predictions never come true does not prevent politicians and economists from continually rehashing them.

What if, in short, [the global economic elite] has already embraced the idea that, as Déborah Danowski recently summarized, “there no longer is enough world for everyone”?

It is quite true that, given its origin (public health) and size (gigantic), the crisis caused by COVID-19 has led the world’s governments to the largest combined fiscal effort since World War II, which includes a series of measures that until recently would have been considered anathema: large investments in public health, temporary suspension of rent payments and evictions, actions to secure wages and jobs, and so on. However, these efforts have not only been well below what is needed, but have been accompanied by demands for more austerity as a way to balance the books once the turbulence has passed.

This insistence on maintaining the same level of capital accumulation in an economy that is moving forward at an uncertain pace may seem economically counterproductive (because it inhibits demand and therefore growth) and politically suicidal (because it creates potentially explosive social conditions). The same can be said of the utter failure of governments and markets to offer a barely adequate response to the challenge of global warming. But this is only if we assume that these decisions are being made with the aim of keeping a viable system for the majority of the world’s population in mind. What if the global economic elite, which has benefited from four continuous decades of rising inequality, is no longer worried about this, because it is no longer preoccupied with consent? What if it has grown accustomed to the idea that maintaining the current pattern of wealth concentration is no longer compatible with minimum conditions of social reproduction for a growing number of people, and no longer feels the need to preserve those lives? What if it is fully aware of the risks of global warming, but confident of being safe from its impacts? What if, in short, it has already embraced the idea that, as Déborah Danowski recently summarized, “there no longer is enough world for everyone”?

Two necessary steps toward a world order in line with this vision would be the erosion of democracy (in order to foreclose any redistributive demands and further shield the economy) and the dissolution of the biopolitical pact (or, rather, the adoption of a narrowing definition of which lives are to be protected, rendering ever more lives expendable). This is why the global rise of the far right matters, and particularly what has occurred in Brazil and the United States during the pandemic. In both countries, governments have mobilized one part of the population against another – “upstanding citizens” against “parasistes” and “communists,” whites against Blacks and immigrants, etc. – as a cover for abandoning the protection of life in general, leaving it to luck and social inequality to decide who should live or die. Those who intend to do nothing to prevent a future in which the basic conditions for life are increasingly exiguous and major natural disasters are increasingly frequent are surely taking note.


This essay was originally published in Luisa Duarte and Victor Gorgulho (org.), No Tremor do Mundo: Ensaios e Entrevistas à Luz da Pandemia (Rio de Janeiro: Cobogó, 2020) and appears here with kind permission from the editors.