The Myth of the Necropolis
A Necropolis is a city of the dead. When you hear the words you think of elaborate graveyards, catacombs beneath Athens, a city of the underworld, buildings and rooms where corpses dwell, like the cities and pyramids of Egypt, elaborate empty structures rising filled with corpses, with skeletons and mummified remains.
The Nazi Concentration Camp as Necropolis
Slovenian writer Boris Pahor titled his 2010 memoir recounting fourteen months in Nazi concentration camps, Necropolis. These concentration camps were cities, economies focused on death, and on mass extermination. Into these death camps, railyards brought each days’ raw materials; the Jews, gypsies, and anti-fascist partisans; bodies unloaded for use as slave labor; for extermination. The war weapons, and products produced by those worked to death, slave barracks, the guards living quarters, salaries, and expendable income, the medical research on psychological torture and human experimentation, the ovens and smokestacks where bodies finally were incinerated; death—this was the economic engine; the productive process of Nazi concentration camps; economies of death; cities built to kill—the Necropolis.
The State as Arbiter of Death
Philosopher Achille Mbembe, coined the term Necropolitics, as opposed to theorist Foucoult’s conception of Bipolitics, as a way to describe a political system where the State through its monopoly on physical violence and control of economic resources, controlled the bodies of its subjects, and decided which persons and populations would die and live.
The American City as Necropolis
Shatema Threadcraft, in an article titled “North American Necropolitics and Gender: On #BlackLivesMatter and Black Femicide,” translated the Necropolitics of theory to the modern African-American experience—segregated urban ghettos and an economy and politics of hard drug distribution, militarized policing, and mass incarceration.
While differing in size, scope, speed, and the ethnicity targeted, modern public and private expenditures in today’s urban areas both serve the same core function as the Nazi Necropolis; a planned and managed death of a people, destroying lives through heroin, crack, gang wars, police shootings, and mass incarceration that disproportionately targets Black and Brown communities.
The Landscape and Terrain of the Necropolis
America’s urban neighborhoods provide a stark physical resemblance to the graveyard cities of ancient times; shuttered schools, factories, vacant lots, and abandoned buildings resembling the tombs, catacombs, and pyramids of Giza, Mycenae, and beneath the streets of Rome.
The Economy of the Necropolis
The economy of the Necropolis is big business. It is not only the payouts to the victims of police misconduct, the millions of dollars of public funds spent per block of now vacant buildings, foreclosed homes, and empty lots incarcerating neighborhood residents. It’s the international heroin, meth, and cocaine trade, and its associated money laundering; the money spent on militarized policing, ICE, and border security. The US military budget and costly foreign interventions. The technological investment in tools of mass surveillance. These are the economic engines of the necropolis. And each additional investment into militarized policing, incarceration, and war weapons demands new wars, new bodies for sacrifice to keep the engine humming.
In many ways the health care industry also profits off the necropolis, investing in expensive diagnostic tools and procedures for end of life care, rather than public health and prevention. One could argue more broadly that our energy extraction system, the oil, coal, and machinery powered by internal combustion engines; our economy is based on a productive system whose end product is death, and destroying life on this planet.
The Necropolis Chokes Prosperity
But while economy of the modern Necropolis may have served its purpose of slowly and methodically removing communities of color, and African Americans specifically, from America’s urban centers, investments in death come at a steep price—investment in destruction and death means forgone investment in infrastructure, education, sanitation, and the means of economic production, and widespread prosperity that brings. All residents, whether the victims or supposed beneficiaries of the political economy of the Necropolis, ultimately lose.
A Green New Deal
But breathe of life is blowing through the tombs, abandoned buildings, empty playgrounds, and vacant lots of America to rebalance our political economy to support and nurture life. A Green New Deal, a renewed hope and determination, to metamorphosize the hideous and profane to the majestic and free once again; to revive urban cities of empty lots and the shells of former factories- their high paying union jobs long since outsourced- and to restore prosperity and peace.
The alternatives are clear. Just as White Supremacists opened fire on that Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand in mid-march, blocks away students were demonstrating as part of an international student strike against climate change and global warming. But the winds of change have stirred, and while the rulers of the necropolis may shriek and wail in a last desperate fit, an economy of life is sprouting up. But it’s up to us to cultivate that renewal, to water and tend it, to let it bloom.