The business leaders and organizations of Ohio are pressing Gov. Mike DeWine to re-open his state's economy because the cost of protecting lives is too high. Republicans in Washington State are exerting a similar pressure on Gov. Jay Inslee. Washington also has a "GOP-backed sheriff" who proudly and loudly states that he will not enforce Inslee’s stay-home order. On Wednesday, the video of the mayor of Las Vegas, Carolyn Goodman, offering up her residents as "Covid-19 guinea pigs" went viral.
How to make sense of these dark developments? The demands by the business elite, the protests by Trump supporters, the pressure on the governors, the insolence of the Snohomish County sheriff? I recommend that we see them as marking the emergence of necro-economics in a world dominated by zombie-economics.
The latter is plainly explained in a 2012 book by the Australian economist John Quiggin, Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk among Us. According to Quiggin, the key economic concepts of the neoclassical school (markets are efficient; markets, if left alone, can achieve a universally beneficial equilibrium; government should stay away from markets; governments should cut costs, budgets should be balanced, no fiscal spending; and so on) were proven wrong by the crash of 2008. But the total collapse of the legitimacy of neoclassical economics—this legitimacy marketed as the "Great Moderation" (roughly 20 years of fairly stable growth)—it continued as if nothing had happened (in 2009 in the US and 2011 in Europe). The ideas rose up from the "graveyard of economic ideology," and the world watched in horror as they "stalked the land" like zombies. Neoclassical prescriptions refused to stay dead. Even a month before for the pandemic, Trump was still trying to cut food stamps and excessively praising the value-inflation of financial assets.
We've had a decade of just zombie-economics. But now the nether realm of dead ideas is fusing with that of dead people. The name of this other realm is necro-economics.
The word necro-economics has its origin in necropolitics, a term introduced in 2003 by the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe. It basically refers to a state's power to decide who dies and who lives. Something like this is found in the sanctions that the US has imposed on the people of Iran; the president of the US is permitted to kill Iranian citizens to achieve a political goal.
In 2005, the LA-based philosopher Warren Montag extended the term from politics to economics in his brilliant interpretation of Adam Smith's 1776 book, The Wealth of Nations, "Necro-economics: Adam Smith and death in the life of the universal." Considered to be the founding text of what at the end of the 19th century Alfred Marshall would call economics (in Smith's time, it was called political economy), The Wealth of Nations, according to Montag, has two key agendas.
One is to vindicate the market economy. Montage describes this as the work's theodicy. In the way theologians explained the existence of evil in a world made by a benevolent god, Adam Smith explains the existence of evil in a beneficent system of wealth creation and distribution called capitalism. The second program, which springs from the first, capitalist theodicy (self-interest produces its opposite, cooperation), gives Montagian necro-economics its meaning in two ways. One, that humans cooperate not because it feels good to help one another, but because we fear death. Second, life is better with a market than without one. Even if the business of making more money from money kills some people, say, by reducing wages to below the level subsistence, those deaths are, in the long run, worth the price of maintaining the market.
Smith postulates an equilibrium or harmony productive of life that is paradoxically created and maintained by the power of the negative, of death: that the allowing of death is necessary to the production of the life of the universal [human cooperation]. Smithʼs economics is a necro-economics. The market reduces and rations life; it not only allows death, it demands that death be allowed by the sovereign power, as well as by those who suffer it. In other words it demands and requires that the latter allow themselves to die. From this we must conclude that underneath the appearance of a system whose intricate harmony might be appreciated as a kind of austere and awful beauty, a self-regulating system, not the ideal perhaps, but the best of all possible systems, is the demand that some must allow themselves to die.This passage, which has echoes of Hegelian sociology and Leibnizian theology, and draws from the philosophical projects of Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, and Achille Mbembe, presents the point of departure for my concept of necro-economics.
Montag sees necro-economics as overlapping with biopolitics, a form of governance that focuses on the lives and health of subjects, and it is this form that Mbembe's necropolitics contrasts. Biopolitics for national subjects; necropolitics for colonial subjects. We can say that China is representative of this mode of the biopolitical control, as demonstrated by its swift response to COVID-19 and its aggressive biological monitoring of its population—though its treatment of Muslims in Xinjiange is the stuff of necropolitics.
My genealogy of necro-economics does not extend to Foucauldian sociology but instead to economic concepts developed by post-Keynesians (not to be confused with neo-Keynesians), one of whom is John Quiggin. Another is Thomas Piketty, whose new book, Capital and Ideology, provides a sweeping historical analysis of the birth and death of neoclassical concepts. In the way Montag's Foucauldian biopolitics/necropolitics couplet overlaps with Smithian necro-economics, my post-Keynesian zombie-nomics overlaps with the directive that subjects subordinate the natural urge to "persist in one's own being" to the preservation of the market. In short, my interpretation of necro-economics is informed by post-Keynesian periodization and colored by Frédéric Lordon's Spinozism. (The Economistes atterrés in the French-speaking world corresponds with post-Keynesian heterodox economics in the English-speaking world.)
From this perspective, we see the US as the paradigmatic state of zombie-nomics: it has banks that are actually broke, rich people who are in fact penniless, and markets whose shares are really worthless. And yet they all persist, all continue to make profits, and all claim to be the spirit (rather than the ectoplasm) of capitalism. The crash of 2020, and the impact of the virus on the conventional economy, will split the US into zombie-economics for the rich and necro-economics for the rest.