This essay explores the idea of dying for the economy that has been a proposition supported by President Trump and the Republican Party in discussions about how to reopen the economy in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and massive lockdowns. While to most of us this seems like crazy talk, I argue that the loss of some peoples' lives in order to sustain a buoyant economy is a rationale acceptable to many in the corporate sector as well as their pro-business political partners. I first explore theoretical discussions about biopolitics, necropolitics, and the long historical relationship between capitalism and death. I then point to an emerging literature on “economies of death” and apply that to the opioid epidemic in the United States as an illustrative case of a “necroeconomy”. I reflect upon parallels between the opioid epidemic and the COVID-19 pandemic, turning to current debate in the United States about reopening the economy versus the associated public health risks of further lives being lost. The rhetoric of these debates reflects widespread economic values that prioritize some lives over others, making explicit who is ultimately “killable” in the quest to return to a flourishing and efficient economy.
I would like to thank the anonymous comments from reviewers, and Kathryn Gillespie for generously sending me a copy of her edited volume while I was in lockdown during the pandemic.
A lot has been written on biopolitics and it is not my intention to recount these discussions here (see Lemke et al. 2011; Campbell and Sitze 2013; Adams 2017).
Of note in Foucault's analysis is that biopolitics work through state institutions such as prison, health and legal systems, regulating and managing people's lives through a “closely meshed grid of material coercions” (Foucault 1997: 36). Foucault's insights highlight the way power governs human and social bodies, managing through various technologies of power every facet of human life including people's subjectivities.
“The conventional understanding is that biopower optimizes, fosters and intensifies life in order to ‘make live’ while being haunted by the specter of a vast geography of exclusion, annihilation and death” (Haskaj 2018: 1149).
This fine pales in comparison to gross profits made—it is estimated that Purdue's profits amounted to $35 billion by 2017.
The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) is the largest federation of unions in the United States made up of 52 national and international unions.