No dawn whitened the dead sky. The blast furnaces along flamed, and the coke ovens, making the darkness redder without illuminating the unknown. And the Voreux, at the bottom of its hole, with its posture as of an evil beast, continued to crunch, breathing with a heavier and slower respiration, troubled by its painful digestion of human flesh.

        Émile Zola, Germinal

We are living in an era of necrocapitalism. In an important sense, we have always lived in it because, at its base, capitalism is about the conversion of life into power. Much of the superstructure of the political-economic order that has colonized the globe in the last four centuries has been devoted to obscuring this fact. But the narrative of capitalism as a technology of human thriving and progress has been torn away by the global pandemic. For the moment it has become painfully obvious that the emperor is naked, although his power remains considerable.

Under what might at this point be characterized as normal circumstances, capitalism functions on compulsion. The production of surplus value requires workers to be forced by the threat of starvation to enter into voluntary agreements whereby they give up a certain proportion of their life energy in the form of labor time in return for a portion of the value created. The transition from the feudal to the capitalist mode of production was accompanied by repeated waves of pressure applied by owners of capital to create a mass of disempowered potential sellers of labor power susceptible to such compulsion.

The degree to which the maintenance and increase of pools of capital takes priority over the well-being of the providers of labor power can be seen in myriad ways across the long history of capitalism. From the misery, dislocation, and occasional starvation caused by the enclosure movement beginning in the 1400s (and reaching its peak in the early years of the Industrial Revolution) to workers in electronics factories topping themselves due to overwork, the underlying imperative of capitalism has remained unchanged from its earliest days to the era of its maturity: eat people.

For workers in industrial or agricultural capitalist economies, there has always been a dimension of threat to life over and above that posed by the overt workings of the system. Capitalism in the early 19th and 20th centuries explicitly espoused the proposition that workers should be paid only as much as necessary to keep them alive and punching the clock every day. Some jobs had the more immediate prospect of lethality in the short or long term (coal mining being a particularly egregious example). When this fact was acknowledged it was generally factored away with the application of Horatio Alger myths when the naked power of capitalists over life and death was not simply and openly acknowledged.

With the rise of the trade union movement, the discursive integument of legitimation of these processes was transformed. In the era of rising workers’ power and consciousness, employers were often forced into changes in approach. The power of organized labor compelled rises in wages, the creation of accident insurance, and provisions for the lives of workers who survived to old age. The possibility that workers my die as a result of participation in the work process was viewed as an outcome worth avoiding rather than one of those things like the weather or the migration of birds that are subject to the vagaries of nature.

The decades after the end of the Second World War were the high point of this process. Extensive unionization and economic growth masked the underlying tendency of the system to consume the lives of workers. This has all changed in the last half-century. The end of the postwar boom and the rise of an economy characterized by an increasing degree of financialization and declining job growth (due in large part to global productive overcapacity and to a lesser degree by the spread of automation) the power of workers to protect themselves from the vicissitudes of capitalist production have diminished considerably.

In his seminal article “Necropolitics,” Achille Mbembe analyzed both European colonialism and the function of the modern war-making state in terms of the concept of “necropower.” Starting from Foucault’s critical account of the concept of sovereignty as developed in his 1975-6 lecture course at the College de France, Mbembe argued that “the ultimate expression of sovereignty resides…in the power and capacity to decide who may live and who must die.” Generally speaking, appropriations of Mbembe’s work have followed his original project of mode of sovereignty in colonial, decolonizing, and post-colonial environments.


In times of crisis, the linkages connecting the colonial and post-colonial zones and the metropole are cast in relief. In addition to the relations of exploitation and subordination that constitute what might be called the public face of the colonial relationship, the system as a whole is comprised within an integument of capitalist relations of production. Modes of production and reproduction across all nodes of the world system share the need to consume human life. That this fact is often more or less disguised by consumerism and media spectacle does not in the least alter the fact that capitalism is, at its root, necrocapitalism.

Thus, the advent of COVID-19 and the challenges it has posed to the normal functioning of important elements of the capitalist system have cast the necropolitical dimension inherent in that system in relief. Some parts of the system, particularly those related to financial markets, are only influenced in second order ways. There it is a matter of increased market volatility and the need to parse and predict what effects that disruptions in the production and circulation of commodities will project into the markets for real estate, insurance, and equities, as well as for more exotic financial instruments.

Necrocapitalism manifests in deferent ways in different places. The distribution of these manifestations constitutes the nomos of the neoliberal order. In some cases, the requirement of producing as backed up by an immediate threat of force. Spaces in which this mode of organization predominates have provided ideal havens for processes organized along the lines of what David Harvey referred to as the spatio-temporal fix. The displacement of productive processes into zones in which the state operates directly, either facilitating or actually undertaking itself the role of organizer or physical compeller of labor discipline and compliance. This allows capitalist production to operate more seamlessly even under conditions of extreme wealth concentration and global overcapacity in terms of productive units.

The ecology of capital reproduction in the so-called more developed economies of the EU and North America differs in important ways. In the financial sector, as well as in sectors mostly based on intellectual labor, the possibilities for conduction affairs from remote locations is greater. The effects of coronavirus on processes in the sectors of the economy centered on material production and service provision are more profound and immediate. In those lines in which physical presence is required, the disruption caused by coronavirus has a profoundly destructive effect on capital accumulation.

The role of government in providing institutional structures and guarantees for spaces of capital reproduction in these latter areas tends to be relatively less hands-on. Thus, it is also easier to camouflage the degree to which the underlying driver of the system is the consumption of human life. Capitalism is presented as life-affirming, producing goods necessary for human survival and flourishing and, by a happy coincidence, providing opportunities for work, which is implicitly or explicitly construed is crucial to human happiness and a good in and of itself.

The engagement of a large proportion of the adult population in “productive” labor also serves the end of imbricating them in structures of power that tend to keep them socially integrated and politically quiescent. Idle hands are the devil’s tools, so the old saying goes, and forestalling the formation of malign intentions toward the system is the basis not only for the retention of labor processes that might otherwise be automated but also for the sort of bullshit jobs described so eloquently by David Graeber.

The confluence of impulses of economic necessity and power drive the necessity of reopening the economy, which is currently so much in vogue especially (but not exclusively) on the political right. While the consensus among epidemiologists and healthcare professionals is that the rescinding of lockdown orders and the reopening of retail and industrial workplaces (as well as public spaces generally) as likely to exacerbate the spread of COVID-19, major figures in the Republican Party have made these openings their primary demand. The recognition of the likely consequences has led Senator McConnell to state that a second stimulus bill would be out of the question unless it contained provisions indemnifying business owners against the possibility that their workers might either die or spread the disease or both.

One of the more interesting elements of the current politics of the right is the astroturfed political campaigns that have seen maskless armed demonstrators assembling on the grounds of statehouses around the country demand that people be given the right (which in fact means required) to expose themselves to a possibly lethal contagion so that the local greasy spoon or tavern can reopen. The attempt to make this appear as a groundswell from below rather than something funded and promoted from above can be read as a recognition of the hesitancy of owners of capital to concede that capitalist accumulation may require the ultimate sacrifice. “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.”

To be clear, to employ the concept of necrocapitalism is not to assert that capitalism has itself fundamentally changed form. When Lenin and his followers wrote of monopoly capitalism, or when Hilferding wrote of finance capitalism, what was being asserted was that a broad transformation in mode of capital circulation and accumulation had occurred. Necrocapitalism, by contrast, is simply capitalism, but capitalism viewed in terms of the right of owners of capital, imbricated with the sovereignty of the modern state, to compel exposure to death as a means of perpetuating processes of accumulation.

At the same time, this approach to capitalism and state sovereignty does not imply a discrete position on the Marxist conception of the labor theory of value. Recently, some scholars (principally Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler) have argued that capital is merely power and ought not be distinguished analytically. In part, this argument rests on a trenchant critique of the labor theory of value. Irrespective of the outcome of that debate, the sovereign power to appropriate life is a fundamental element of the system whether capital or power is what is being accumulated.

What is clear is that coronavirus is the mirror that flatters not. The healthcare system in the United States, which leads the world in per capita costs without thereby leading the world in positive outcomes, has had its gaps and shortcomings brutally exposed. Not only is the profit-centered infrastructure creaking under the strain, but the practice of linking access to healthcare to employment has been shown for what it truly is: a means of blackmailing value producers into compliance with the needs of capital accumulation.

Meanwhile, the political classes continue to show that they no longer have any compunction about laying bare the actual imperatives of the system. The mayor of Las Vegas offered up her city as a test site for simply opening the economy irrespective of viral spread. Asked if she would be willing to expose her person to the consequences of turning the city into a massive petri dish (and disease vector), she demurred. The president and his cabal have recently been giving out that Americans should consider themselves “warriors” in the struggle to reopen the economy in the face of coronavirus. As usual, the bosses are willing to fight to the last worker in the war of accumulation.

Contrary to the wishful thinking of many, the crisis caused by COVID-19 is not winding down. There is every reason to believe that before the end of the year the situation will have become considerably worse as the manic drive to reopen the economy wreaks lethal consequences without thereby creating viable conditions for robust capital accumulation. Given the current structure of political division brewed up in the toxic media ecology of the extreme right, the traditional Marxist view that miserable material conditions and exploitation have the capacity to generate defetishizing critique looks as threadbare as it has at any point since the summer of 1918.

Conditions in the world currently seem calculated to destroy the market for dystopian fiction. Why would one want to read it when there seems every likelihood that one could be living The Handmaid’s Tale or The Road War or The Hunger Games or The Road Warrior (or The Road) at some point in the foreseeable future? In the face of impending (or increasing) dystopia, it is incumbent on the left to forge and promote utopian visions. To this point, the left has specialized in utopias that few outside post-Leninist echo chambers have any inclination to realize. The challenge, then, is to find a viable way out before the roof falls in.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: