In a neo-colonial state like Bangladesh, where the concept of sovereignty has not developed through any particular philosophical journey or tradition, but where sovereignty has been established through brutal colonial occupation, in such a state, ‘rule of law’ has always been a ‘state of exception’!
On top of everything, racism was simultaneously the driver of this sort of society and its principle of destruction. And insofar as a self scarcely existed without an other- the other being only another me, including in the figure of denial-killing the other was no longer separable from killing oneself. — Achille Mbembe
The slogan ‘We can’t breathe’ has become very popular in the United States in the wake of the recent murder of George Floyd. At present, people all over the world are protesting for their right to breathe.
This right to ‘breathe’ is as biological as it is political. COVID-19 has exposed the hollowness of the health sector in a neoliberal world. People are dying due to a lack of treatments. Neoliberal states have for years reduced their ability to provide public services while accelerating their capacities for policing, surveillance and warfare. Today, the public healthcare responses needed are supplanted by severe repressive measures. In fact, COVID-19 has also exposed a harsh truth before all of us. Even the pandemic serves as the pretext to strengthen regressive tactics and securitisation by the states. These modern sovereigns are inherently incapable of delivering the expected healthcare to the people.
In Bangladesh, people are dying without getting treatment. People are lying face-down in front of the hospitals. In other words, despite the so many big talks of advances in development, modernity, and progress, the states of the world are not able to keep people alive by enabling them breathing biologically. Because the most basic fundamental rights like health care have been handed over to the market long ago.
As a result, the right to receive healthcare has become a corporate business. The responsibility for this is handed out to the profit-mongering neoliberal capitalist system.
The Political Aspect of ‘right to breath’
The political significance of the right to breathe is also immense. George Floyd, as he was black, lived a life without any political freedom in the United States.
The production of ‘bare life’, deprived of any political rights, has become the basis for the survival of sovereign power nowadays. Today, the creation of ‘Homo sacer’, devoid of political rights, in one or another category, is the basis of modern sovereign power.
Later I will discuss in details how sovereignty consists in the power to manufacture an entire crowd of people who specifically live at the edge of life, or even on its outer edge — people for whom living means continually standing up to death. ( Mbembe, 2019, p. 37). I will also explore how the philosophy of sovereign power has been converted from administering life and producing killable human life to administering death, where life is merely death’s medium. I also aim towards locating the paradigm shift in sovereign power: how life, which was the end of sovereign power, has drastically become the means of death from the perspective of power.
We are going through an appalling situation in Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, bare life has been manufactured by various categories; ‘atheist’, ‘Shibir’ to name a few. However, the political power in Bangladesh today has become fascist to the extent that it can produce a ‘homo sacer’ and kill them on a whim. Nobody will even bear the slightest feelings of responsibility or justice toward this sort of life, or, rather, death. The killed or killable person does not even have to be an ethnic or religious minority as it is in the case of the United States.
Peasant Nikhil, who was recently killed by the police, Abrar, Biswajit, Tonu, and Imran are all victims of the brutal wrath of this repressive power today. In this respect, the situation in Bangladesh is unprecedented in the world. In other regions, at least people belonging to the ‘mainstream’, are in no way as exposed to the wrath of sovereign power as are people of Bangladesh. The situation of the ethnic-religious-cultural minorities in Bangladesh is easily conceivable.
People are building resistance against the yoke of sovereign power all over the world. In Bangladesh too, we see examples of various forms of resistance.
What is the political significance of such a response?
The significance is that the people of Bangladesh today are also one of the potential George Floyds in the eye of power. We also have our own ‘Floyd’. Our Floyd’s name is Nikhil or Sagar-Runi or Twaki. In some cases, people in Bangladesh live in a more precarious situation than did George Floyd or Trevon.
It is not that White Americans are not at all exposed to the atrocities of U.S. sovereignty, but that the state racism that has developed there is a combination of race and class, the racial and religious ‘minority’ is the primary victim of that racism. On the other hand, the way in which the ‘mainstream’ people in Bangladesh itself are exposed to state violence, the way in which people are trapped in structural killings at the state level, the way in which life is plotted to subjugate before death is rare in the world. The life of a citizen of the United States is subject to various functionality of power; on the other hand, death in Bangladesh has become a symbol of sovereign power. The first one is the biopolitics in a neoliberal political system; while the second one is the necropolitics of a necrocapitalist political system.
The purpose of this article is not to compare the differences between the sovereign power of the United States and Bangladesh; Rather, it is just a ‘means’. My central aim in this article is to explore the origins of the universal outcry for the right to breathe during the Covid-19 pandemic and the political reality that has made it inevitable. We want to see under what political conditions this right to breathe turns into an outrage. To that end, I would also like to give a brief overview of sovereign power, biopolitics, and the necropolitics that are evolving in recent times.
Sovereign power, biopolitics, and necropolitics
Cameroonian theorist Achille Mbembe originally developed the concept of necropolitics as the limit and extension of Foucault’s concept of biopolitics. He discusses in detail the significance of the idea of sovereign power, biopolitics in the modern state. He introduces the concept of necropolitics by marking the limits of the idea of biopolitics in post-colonial states during the period of late colonialism and late capitalism. So, before discussing the idea of necropolitics, it is also vital to have a preliminary discussion on sovereign power and biopolitics.
- The philosophical aspect of sovereignty
The philosophical concept of modernity is at the centre of the idea of sovereign power. Modernity has always sought to establish the idea of some general norms for the public sphere by making a distinction between ‘public’ space and ‘private’ space. Since the philosophical proposition of modernity has played an essential role in the various readings of sovereignty, community, and subject, it has been assumed that there must be some kind of universal narratives to govern the public sphere. ‘Reason’ is considered to be one of the main foundations of modernity. Moreover, sovereign power will dictate the norms in the public sphere and ‘unreason’ (i.e. passion, fantasy) has been identified as the norms of the private sphere.
According to this view, the structural element of sovereign power would be free, and equal individuals; those who are self-conscious, self-understanding. It is this body of ‘independent’ individuals who will exercise reason in the public sphere with their full consent and will. Through the practice of reason and sovereignty, eventually, they will achieve autonomy.
But what will be the medium of reason in the public sphere? Politics. According to the concept of sovereignty derived from this abstract philosophy of enlightenment and modernity, politics is supposed to be the exercise of ‘reason’ in public.
But Achille Mbembe finds this notion of sovereignty, derived from the philosophical understanding of modernity, ‘romantic’. Because here it is assumed that the subject, that is, the ruled, has control over his/her own life, his own decision. Governed is as such the master of his own life. The ‘free and equal’ body of individuals is supposed to be the constitutional element of sovereignty, and this body will be the authors of their own through the exercise of sovereignty. The purpose of sovereignty seems to be the autonomy and self-creation, self-limitation of society.
But as Mbembe has shown, this romantic interpretation of sovereignty actually gives the wrong idea about the politics of sovereignty. That is why he seeks to understand it more tangibly than the abstract philosophical proposition of modernity about sovereignty, politics, and governmentality; through the ontological relationship of sovereignty with the concept of life and death.
Modern power has a bio-political character. That is, modern power makes its ultimate projection by establishing absolute control over life and death. In fact, sovereign power becomes ‘sovereign’ by determining who will live and who will die, who will get the apparent protection of power and who will become disposable. There is no functional significance of modern power except by constructing these categories. Sovereign, as Carl Schmitt thought, is the one who can reserve the right to declare a ‘state of exception’, and this state of exception is the basis of sovereignty. That is, if the sovereign cannot make an ‘exception’ to the rule, can not exist above the law, then the word ‘sovereignty’ has no meaning.
It is this ‘exceptional’ power that enables the modern state the ultimate control of life and death. Through biopolitics, the sovereign power of the contemporary state makes its manifestation on life. Sovereign power means establishing control over life and preserving the right to kill, moulding life according to power. In this case, the human body turns into the ground for the exercise of power.
As I mentioned earlier, the term biopolitics has different meanings, but in this article, it is used primarily as Foucauldian biopolitics. That is, in the sense in which the French theorist and philosopher Michel Foucault coined the term. The Foucauldian significance of biopolitics is that human life has become the central theme of sovereign politics. Through the mechanisms of modern power, it becomes possible to control and constitute life. As Rachel Adams wrote on biopolitics: it can be understood as political rationality which takes the administration of life and populations as its subject: ‘to ensure, sustain, and multiply life, to put this life in order’. (Adams/2017)
The king possessed sovereign power in ancient or medieval times. He was the source of all power. There was a provision of severe punishment for disobeying him, and it would be executed openly, in public so that the people can understand how terrible the punishment could be meted out for ignoring or disobeying the sovereign king. But with the fall of the monarchy, the concept of punishment and function of power began to change. After the bourgeois revolution took place in the eighteenth century, intense protests and revolts against this cruelty of punishment began all over Europe. As a result, a humble way of punishment was needed to be discovered. In the Middle Ages, the ultimate power of the sovereign ruler lay in the killing of the subjects. In the modern state, the system of governmentality has developed in such a way as to chain people’s lives and trap the subject under rigorous discipline.
But, medieval practices such as turning human beings into the killable ‘homo sacer’ did not end with the advancement of modern power. Instead, repressive and deductive functions of power, work together with such biotechnologies of power (that is administering life positively). While the benchmark for the medieval sovereign was to ‘take life or let live’, modern biopower constitutes ‘a power to foster life or disallow it to the point of death’. Thus, brutal killing through encounter or in the name of crossfire, torture in the remand cell also constitutes modern governmentality. The only difference is that the modern state has mastered all the techniques to control human life that was unimaginable for the sovereign king of the monarchy.
According to Foucault, modern power must be understood through its functionality, application and expansion. Such power defines itself in relation to the biological field-of which it takes control and in which it invests itself. This control presupposes a distribution of human species into groups, a subdivision of the population into subgroups, and the establishment of a biological caesura between these subgroups. Foucault refers to this using the seemingly familiar term “racism” (Mbembe, 2019, p. 71). So, it is needless to say through this omnipotence of modern power, the state can quickly transform the civilian population into a docile one. From family planning to the control of pandemic, human being’s own body has become the object of power. As such, pandemic never remains simply a medical or epidemiological crisis; it becomes a crisis of sovereignty itself.
This is why non-medical regressive intervention becomes the only possible way to wage a ‘war’ against the pandemic; which eventually turns to be a war on people and a pretext for the states to consolidate more power.
In a neo-colonial state like Bangladesh, where the concept of sovereignty has not developed through any particular philosophical journey or tradition, but where sovereignty has been established through brutal colonial occupation, in such a state, ‘rule of law’ has always been a ‘state of exception’! This is not a matter of normalisation of the state of exception replacing the state of the law; rather the ‘state of exception’ exists here right at the heart of the rule of law itself. In an article titled ‘Quarantine State’ written last April, I claimed this ‘state of emergency’ has been constitutionally established from the very beginning in Bangladesh, which carries the tradition of colonial law and occupation. In other words, the ruling class of Bangladesh has set an unprecedented example by making the unconstitutional power turning it into a constitutional one.
That is, in colonial states, the law is always a state of emergency. In such a state, the distinction between the rule of law, bare violence and the state of exception is blurred. Achille Mbembe thinks that the concept of bio-politics is insufficient to understand the signs of sovereign power in such post-colonial states. He believes that the idea of necropolitics will be more effective in understanding such a state. On this point, I agree entirely with him. While in a biopolitical state human ‘life’ becomes the central subject of sovereign politics, in a necropolitical state administering ‘death’ becomes the main functionality of sovereign power. That is the necropolitical state and the process of subjugating the lives of most of the people to the power of death. In this context the condition of sovereign power does not depend on moulding life positively and creating ‘bare life’; rather, it is a political, cultural and economic arrangement of structural death: necropolitical power proceed’s by a sort of inversion between life and death as if life was merely death’s medium. It ever seeks to abolish the distinction between means and ends. (Mbembe, 2019, p. 38)
Producing large scale deaths becomes an inevitable part of such total polity. Necropolitics means the subjugation of life to the power of death. Such a political settlement can be identified by the phrase ‘secret life, public death’, a large population where life becomes the waiting room for boarding into a train called ‘death’. In such a political reality, death is the ‘rule’; life is the ‘exception’. To live here means to escape death as long as you can. As Achille Mbembe has noted, necropolitics refers to a death-world, a form of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to living conditions that confer upon them the status of the living dead. (Mbembe/2019, pg 92).
Some signature features of such a political regime are: unprecedented state horror, a society of violence where the state does not hold the monopoly of violence rather the state violence is reproduced throughout the society, the commodification of war or warlike situation, predation & dispossession of natural resources and communities in the name of ‘development’, different modes of killings, concentration camps, ghetto, enclaves, creating less human than human (consider the plight and systematic racism against the Rohingya in Bangladesh). To sum up, Necropolitics implies a closed entrenchment of political, economic and military devices, oriented towards the eliminations of human populations. But along with this aspect, necropolitics is also deployed through “small doses” of death that structure the everyday life of individuals. (Antonio Pele, 2020).
Bangladesh: an undestined necropolis
In Bangladesh, we see such a sovereign power. That sovereign power has established a ‘death world’ not only for the humans here but also for the non-human agents available: Deaths from explosions due to gas line leakage, the collapseor fire incident of a multi-storey building that has been cleared by the authorities due to corruption and nepotism despite having loopholes or defects, massive loss of lives and properties, continuous death-trap on the road, frozen bodies of citizens through crossfire or enforced disappearance.
To suppress dissent-criticism-opposition, to monitor and control all the political activities and movements of the citizens, to reduce the people of the whole country to pure ‘bare life’ without political rights … it is an endless list!Retired military officers, from government officials to ordinary citizens, are the victims of the wrath of this terrible omnipotent sovereign power. The violent wrath of this sovereign power has spread to the depths of society to such an extent that today we are witnessing the manifestation of a horrible regime of suspicion, surveillance, moral policing, mob lynching, turning all and sundry severely exposed to death. Such a society cannot survive without constantly producing ‘enemies’. Mbembe has rightly identified such a society:
Are we not in the presence of an entirely different political regime whenever the suspension of law and freedoms is no longer an exception, even if, in addition, nor is it the rule? Where does justice stop and where does vengeance begin when laws, decrees, searches, checks, special tribunals, and other emergency measures aim above all to generate a category of a priori suspects yielding a state of suspicion …. (Mbembe, 2019, p.33)
Aren’t we, right in Bangladesh too, exposed to, in some cases, more ruthless, more deadly sovereign power?
I started this article from George Floyd. Floyd was not a “mainstream” person in the United States. In other words, he was not a White American, so he is the latest victim of the political-cultural racism that has been created the USA of oppression, hatred, and dehumanisation of various religious-ethnic-gender minorities.
What are the parallel comparisons between the politically rightless life of religious-ethnic-gender minorities, even religious and/or ethnic majority-satisfied people, the way they face imprisonment, harassment-murder-crossfire-abduction, draconian laws here in Bangladesh? Is it possible anywhere else in the world? In such a crude fashion?
The way freedom of assembly and freedom of expression are shattered here legally; can there be any parallel comparison?
The way emergency measures have been made a ‘normal’ rule here, Unconditional human rights, such as fundamental rights, are enshrined in the chain of constitutional conditions. The legal basis for brutal killings, such as crossfire is given, how law enforcement agencies reserve the right to intrude any house without a warrant (breaking the door if necessary) based on suspicion is unparallel in the world.
So, the people of Bangladesh live such a naked life without biological and political rights. To get killed or to endure forced disappearance, they don’t even have to be a ‘minority’ like Floyd.
It is the holders of such a naked & exposed lives before the racist power that again manufacture the racial-religious-cultural ‘minority’ ‘other’ of the society, reproduces the ideology of racist sovereignty in the society and spreads this ideology to the pros and cons of the society.
As a result, atheist-shibir- homosexual and more broadly even citizens fighting for political rights are exposed as ‘other’ and killable objects before sovereign power.
Hobbes’s sovereign leviathan finds rationality on the pretext of ‘all against all’ in the natural state of a human being. In Bangladesh, we can see a one-step deterioration of that situation: here, everyone is the ‘other’ of everyone else. Again, all are the ‘other’ of sovereign power.
Everyone is a politically rightless, a potential George Floyd. Or Nikhil?
If the crude & colonial features of the sovereign power of Bangladesh state have been evident to us, we will understand why this regime and the state as a whole, has severely failed to protect the lives of the COVID-19 infected people. Christopher J. Lee has aptly put the situation as it is: after decades of reduced infrastructure for medical care in many countries, whether through limited medical facilities in rural areas or through the sheer scarcity of life-saving hospital equipment witnessed now, national governments cannot guarantee or even administer life, except through the crudest forms of non-medical state control and cold violence against non-citizens as cited earlier.
While it was urgently needed to redefine ‘security’ in terms of health, we have militarised the concept of ‘security’. Now we are paying the price: the state interventions in time of pandemic have been nothing but to deepen the state of ‘legal’ violence.
The popular novel of a Bangladeshi novelist Mamun Hussain seems to be true. It is as if all our arrangements are to be the victims of various biological and political killings in this Necropolis. We, the inhabitants of a Necropolis, smell death in every breath we take. As we walk in the premises of an unknown necropolis, we have no choice but a morbid desire to make death a little easier and happier.
Note: For a detailed understanding of the Foucauldian concepts of Biopolitics and Biopower: the last chapter of the first volume of History of Sexuality (The Will to Knowledge: History of Sexuality Volume I, 1976), lecture series at the Collège de France Society Must be Defended; Security, Territory, Population and The Birth of Biopolitics are recommended.
1.Achille Mbembe (2019), Necropolitics, 1st edition, Duke University Press
- Rachel Adams (2017), Michel Foucault: Biopolitics and Biopower, Critical Legal Thinking, Accessed at criticallegalthinking.com/2017/05/10/michel-foucault-biopolitics-biopower/
- Antonio Pele (2020), Achille Mbembe: Necropolitics, Critical Legal Thinking, Accessed at criticallegalthinking.com/2020/03/02/achille-mbembe-necropolitics/
- Mamun Hussain (2019), Necropolis, Urrki, Dhaka.
- Foucault in an Age of Terror: Essays on Biopolitics and the Defence of Society, edited by Stephen Morton & Stephen Bygrave; Palgrave Macmillan, 2008
Sarwar Tusher is an author and activist; interested in studying the state, power, authority, sovereignty, violence, and social relations.