Part of series: Security Lancaster Seminar Series

The Necro-Geopolitics of American Insecurity


~1,000 words


Last modified: December 9th, 12,020 HE

The Necro-Geopolitics of American Insecurity was a talk delivered by Prof. François Debrix of the Virginia Tech College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, as part of both the Security Lancaster and the Lancaster University PPR Lunchtime Seminar Series'.

Introducing Debrix, Dr Mark Lacy of Lancaster University highlighted his publications Tabloid Terror: War, Culture and Geopolitics and Necrogeopolitics: On Death and Death-Making in International Relations. Debrix followed this up with The Geopolitics of American Insecurity: Terror, Power and Foreign Policy, which he had co-edited with Lacy.

Debrix began his seminar by referring to the chapter in the latter book by Timothy Luke entitled Hyper-power or hype-power? The USA after Kandahar, Karbala, and Katrina, in which Luke poses the question of whether the US has transitions from a hyper-power to a hype-power; that is, one whose decline, played out publicly in the media and popular culture, conflicts with its professed hyperpower and has to be increasingly obfuscated by insubstantive hype.

One section of IR scholarship has attempted to address this question by claiming that the US now, in the absence of a hyper-powered adversary such as the USSR, traffics in soft power (derisively called cultural exports by others). This tradition argues that the new mark of a hyper-power is its exporting of attractive intangibles such as values and ideas, rather than shows of overwhelming military force.

Debrix presented various examples of US hype from recent decades: the premature claims of mission accomplished during the Bush era; the Obama-era killing of bin Laden and conversion of the War on Terror to a drone-powered crusade; and the Trump-era rhetoric of stable genius and making American great again. He also stressed that the idea of hype was not necessarily new or unique to the past 20 years of the US. The US had always had a victory culture; perhaps it had always been about hype.

Debrix criticised Luke’s chapter for not addressing the link between hype-power and death-making, or necropower, in particular what forms of necropower correspond to hype-power. Today, he argued, hype-power means causing death constantly, banally, particular of one’s own people. Today’s necropower, under conditions of US power, means managing endemics—see Foucault—which lead to deaths not talked about; soft killing, slow violence, slow death. Hype-power, Debrix stressed, was just as deadly as super- and hyper-power.

Citing Achille Mbembe’s concept of necropolitics—a reworking of Foucault’s biopolitics, or the power to make life—to describe the subjugation of life to the power of death and the making of death-worlds and living-dead bodies (particularly in the global South), Debrix felt that the definition was too attached to the rule, force and violence of the sovereign and its agents, with a focus on the spectacle and large-scale massacres present in colonialism; these were, he argued, the preserve of super- and hyper-power.

Debrix’s definition, in contrast, focuses on understanding necropower as a way of making people live, always with the chance of massive loss of life by banal and seemingly trivial means; the uneventful ordinariness of slow deaths through incompetence, ignorance or indifference, but also at times through the targetting of vulnerable populations (such as through austerity and gentrification).

Debrix, channelling Foucault, said that during the 18th and 19th centuries, states turned to address their own endemics with the intention, perhaps, of controlling them for the benefit of their populations. However, they had instead produced two key outcomes: they had created new administrations, new uses of science, new areas of expertise; and they had figured out how to use all of these to help some populations to thrive whilst sacrificing others. The link between these endemics and deaths, he said, had been severed for some lives but left for others.

Our modern issues were not the result of super- or hyper-power, Debrix argued, but of power that has been decentralised, but which still represented power over life and death. Death-making is now soft, slow and social; hype-power gives rise to multiple experts, multiple areas of expertise, micro-sovereigns or micro-powers whose disseminated power encourages further hype. This hype-power is risky, as it produced ever more conditions of death and decay and insecurities that increasingly cannot be ignored or glossed-over.

Debrix felt that IR scholarship was lacking when it came to articulating the paradox of US insecurity, but that he had been drawn to Zoë Wool’s book After War: The Weight of Life at Walter Reed, which detailed the lives of wounded US soldiers returning from conflicts in the Middle East and being treated at the eponymous military hospital; that is, mostly being left to linger until healed or dead. Wool proposed the concept of the extra/ordinary, the limbo zone wherein these soldiers resided, and Debrix felt that this term applied more broadly, giving the example of Trump: a hype machine and a death dealer all at once.

Under hype-power and necropolitics, people exposed to poor health and insecurity for decades, if not generations, were now being allowed to die en masse, with the US’ world-class (and vaccine-producing) medical research industry was dependent on the same system—one in which the wealthy, the white, etc. receive world-class treatment whilst others are left to decay. Connecting this to the militarisation of US police forces, Debrix proposed that the US’ hyped-up war machine has two branches: the military, who practice necropower there; and the police, who practice it here. Both are in the business of creating bodies, mostly of those already deemed not to matter.

Debrix concluded by discussion immigration policy through this lens, arguing that in contrast to the hype of Trump’s big, beautiful wall was the more mundane and larger-scale pattern of abuses against migrant bodies, leading to constant, unnoticed death (in Europe as much as in America). Ultimately, whether we call the US a super-, hyper- or hype-power, it nonetheless relies on an ever-increasing pile of bodies.

There then followed a Q & A.